Pine smoke and plastic are my two earliest strong memories, and from exotic enough places: breakfast fires on the dirt road to Alaska, the Alcan, in 1948, and the cheap phenolic resin they used for children's masks in 1946, New Orleans, the first Mardi Gras after the war. I was Mickey Mouse and my brother, Donald Duck, pulled me behind him in a wagon, both of us suffocating in the plastic.
Smells. Scientists say that we remember smells more acutely than information from the other senses, because we evolved from a little rodent-like thing that scuttled around in the underbrush at night, keeping away from dinosaurs, and it lived by smell rather than sight. Our big ungainly brains evolved from that creature's specialized little peanut, and we retain an inability to ignore smells and a skill for remembering them and their associations.
Twenty-eight years after Vietnam, the smell of roadkill still brings back the smell of days-old bodies rotting in the jungle heat. My first combat experience was to jump out of a helicopter into a "hot LZ," a landing zone that was under enemy fire. We jumped into six-foot-high elephant grass and lost sight of one another and all sense of direction. There was steady machinegun fire from both sides. One side yelled in English and so I staggered over there, having learned nothing from twenty years of war movies, and rolled over a dusty berm to relative safety. As soon as I dumped my cargo -- plastic explosives, a chain saw, and a welcome case of Budweiser -- I was overcome by the smell of the dead. It was mostly enemy dead, too close to our position for retrieval, but there were four or five of our own, lined up in plastic wrap, waiting for things to calm down enough for a helicopter to actually land. I'd never seen a dead person before who was not in a coffin. Their feet were at uncomfortable angles. I wonder now why they weren't in body bags. We usually carried enough for everybody.
A plastic smell that always brings me peace is Bakelite. My first real telescope, which my father bought under grumbling protest when I was 12 or so, had a sleek black Bakelite tube, and for years I was out almost every clear night, peering at the stars and planets and especially the Moon. I'd look at it under low power, then slip in a medium-power eyepiece, and then the highest power, imagining I was in a spaceship approaching that then- mysterious world. As the earth turned, the cratered surface slid silently under my porthole, as if I were orbiting dangerously close. I lost myself in it -- Plato, Copernicus, Tycho, Kepler; all were intimate friends, but not as philosophers and scientists, just as the odd names of craters on the Moon.
I told everybody that I was going to be a spaceman when I grew up (the word "astronaut" being some years in the future) and most of them laughed. Uncle Harry, who had no children and so treated them as adults with limited experience, said he believed I would do it, and asked me to bring him a rock from the Moon. Nobody knew that I wouldn't go to the Moon because I had been born too late. The first men who orbited and landed on the Moon fought in WWII and Korea, and associated combat with the smell of a rubber face mask and cold oxygen, not humid jungle and the nightmare reek of rotting flesh.
Everybody's life takes sudden turns, and we all look back at major branches and wonder who we could have been if this or that had gone the other way. I very much didn't want to go to Vietnam, and one way out of it was to work for the military. The year before I graduated with a degree in astronomy (one year married, to Mary Gay Potter), I applied for a dream job with the Naval Observatory, and came close to getting it.
The position was taking astrophotos with a small telescope high on a mountain in Argentina. The irresistible part of it, for someone who wanted to be both an astronomer and a writer, was that the Navy paid you for a regular 40-hour week, but you actually put in 80 hours during the week you were up on the mountain, and then you got the next week off, doing anything you could find to do in the small town at the foot of the mountain, like poetry and fiction. My main qualification for the job was not my astronomy enthusiasm and training, but the fact that my wife Gay was finishing her degree in Spanish, and really wanted to go down there and talk with the natives. None of the other astronomers' wives spoke Spanish, and they were suffering from linguistic and cultural cabin fever.
I got drafted while the Navy was still deciding. I had applied to the Peace Corps as well, saying I'd rather spend six years digging ditches in Africa than one year killing people in Vietnam, but they never responded. Earlier, I had petitioned for conscientious objector status, but the draft board wouldn't even start the process until you had a letter from your minister, and atheists don't have ministers. Stupidly, I let it go at that. A year later, someone took the government to court over the policy, separation of church and state, and won the right to spend six years digging ditches in Nigeria.
I was in Canada when my draft notice came. My mother, who loved World's Fairs, had taken Gay and me up to Expo Œ67 in Montreal, as a graduation present. When we came back and unpacked the tiny crammed mailbox, we knew what was in the letter from the Selective Service. We had talked about it. I could have left the draft notice unopened, filled the Volkswagen with clothes and books, and gone back to Montreal to take up citizenship in a less bellicose country. We'd talked about Sweden, too, and jail.
My formal rationale for not going to jail or Sweden was that I was still determined to become a spaceman, which for the foreseeable future would be a government job. In the late sixties, NASA had a "Scientist as Astronaut" program: they would take a Ph.D. in science or engineering and teach him (or her, in theory) how to fly jets, which was easier than getting a jet jockey to go back to graduate school.
When I got back from Vietnam two years later, the program was moribund. The training schedule, it turns out, was outlandish, cramming young academics into breakneck test-pilot training, with only a couple of hours on Sunday to catch up on journals and do a little thinking about the subject to which they had dedicated their lives. Only one academic, geologist Harrison Schmidt, graduated from the program and walked on the Moon. It was some years later that I came to suspect that there was something deeper than a desire to walk on the Moon behind my going along with the draft game, something strong enough to override a natural revulsion toward what most of my generation saw as an unjust war.
If I had renounced my citizenship or gone to jail, I couldn't have become an astronaut, but what might have been more important was the fear that I would never really be sure whether the refusal was actually cowardice in disguise. My pacifism was closely reasoned and, I thought, deeply felt -- but I was a post-WWII American male who had grown up on John Wayne movies and GI Joe comics, and there was something in me that deeply wanted to prove that I could soldier.
If I had wound up in Canada, or Argentina, or Africa, I suspect I still would have become some kind of writer, although I probably wouldn't have started out with a war novel. I had already written enough bad poetry to sink an anthology -- my first publication was a poem in the Washington Post, at the age of nine -- and by the time I was drafted, I had already written the first two science fiction stories I would sell.
My last semester in college, I only needed one or two courses to graduate, but could take five or six at no extra cost. I tacked on a computer science course or two, and Creative Writing, which gave my advisor fits. She wanted me to take Advanced Differential Equations, but I had not really enjoyed garden variety differential equations, and the writing course sounded easy.
The professor, Dr. Shaumann, brought a stack of books to class every meeting, and read to us examples of what he thought constituted good writing, which could have been boring but was not, and asked us to write stories and give them to him for suggestions as to revision. My first one came back with few suggestions, and the question whether a person who was obviously a published writer ought to be enrolled in an elementary course.
In fact, I did sell the two science fiction stories I wrote in that class, but not right away. When you came back from Vietnam, the army gave you thirty days' "compassionate leave," so that your family could deal with the problems of transition, rather than the army. I retyped the two stories and sent them out to magazines, and the first one sold in a few weeks -- "Out of Phase," which appeared in the September Œ69 Galaxy. (The other worked its way down to a penny-a-word market, Amazing, and netted me all of $15 -- but then years later it was adapted for The Twilight Zone, for fifty times as much. Not bad for a story banged out overnight to meet a class deadline.)
People who talk about "the writing game" are usually being sarcastic or cynical, but in many ways the activity does resemble a game, with its peculiar rules and rewards, and like most interesting games, success is the result of both skill and luck. The usual pattern for a writer is to collect piles of rejection slips, and after some months or years finally to make a sale, and eventually build a reputation and sell most of what he or she writes. But a significant fraction of the professional writers I've met, a quarter or a third, didn't do that -- like me, they sold their first story and just kept selling. I also sold my first novel to the first publisher who saw it, my first stage play, my first screenplay. When I returned to poetry after a ten-year enforced hiatus (I loved it but felt my energies ought to be reserved for writing that paid), I wrote a long narrative poem that sold to Omni magazine.
That's luck. It's also talent, but after a couple of decades of teaching writing on the side, I know that talent isn't rare. In a class of twenty, there are usually one or two or several who have enough talent to write for a living, eventually. Whether they're willing to play the game, and accept its rewards and penalties, is another matter.
Even after I'd sold a few stories, I figured writing would be a sideline, beer money. I was accepted into graduate school in the fledgling computer science department at the University of Maryland, aiming for a twin Ph.D. in computer science and physiology: I wanted to compare data structures in computers with the microstructure of the brain, and see whether one might shed some light on the other.
What kept me from competing with Marvin Minsky was the Milford Writer's Workshop. This was an annual affair that Damon Knight held at his decaying manse in Milford, Pennsylvania: he would invite twenty- some professional sf writers and two or three beginners to come up for a week-long roundtable workshop. It was not just sitting around and tearing stories apart, though. The important part to me was social, mingling with men and women whose work I had been reading most of my life -- Knight and his wife Kate Wilhelm, Gordon R. Dickson, Ben Bova, Keith Laumer, and Harlan Ellison. Gene Wolfe and Carol Emshwiller were there, fine writers whose work was known to the intelligentsia but not to me, and the other beginners were Gardner Dozois and Charles Platt, who both went on to make their livings writing and editing.
The powerful thing was getting to know these people and realizing that if I was willing to put in the time and energy, and deal with a certain amount of frustration and bullshit, I would be one of them. I was accepted as a provisional equal. Science fiction had always been generous that way, one generation helping the next. The field has matured now, though, and its thousand practitioners more resemble "real" writers, self-serving and bitchy.
The pivotal moment for me was toward the end of the conference, while having a beer with Ben Bova. I mentioned to him that I wanted to write a novel, not sf, about my experiences in Vietnam, but first novels are such a crapshoot I thought I'd put it off for a while. He made a generous offer: write a couple of chapters and an outline. If he liked it, he'd pass it on to his editor at Holt, along with a letter of recommendation.
I figured I'd get around to it, but mainly channeled the Milford energy into short stories. When September came around, I signed up as a part-time graduate student, so I'd have more time to write. On the first day of classes, I found out that the professor who was teaching the one I really needed -- Simulation of Physical Systems -- had run off to another university, leaving his notes with a graduate student who promised he'd try to stay one week ahead of us. I quit. I sat down and wrote the two chapters and outline for War Year and sent them to Bova. Two weeks later, I had a contract from Holt, Rinehart and Winston. I dropped out of mathematics and never looked back.
We got $750, the first half of the novel's advance, just before Christmas. Gay was teaching part-time at a local Catholic school; before she got home from work, I cashed the check into fifty- and hundred-dollar bills and used them to decorate a foot-high Christmas tree.
War Year was very short, less than 40,000 words. Holt wanted it to be part of their "Pacesetter" series -- essentially books to be used in adult education, with adult themes but simple language. I finished it in about six weeks. The basic source was my letters home to Gay from Vietnam. I had written almost every day, a combination of staying in touch and keeping a journal, and she kept the letters in chronological order. I just rearranged the incidents for more dramatic impact, and added some hearsay, as well as the things I remembered seeing but had been reluctant to write to her about.
(As it turned out, the Pacesetter series died before War Year was released, so Holt marketed it as both a mainstream novel and in the "young adult" category. That made for some interesting reviews, since the soldiers' language is rendered frankly. It also became a short-lived cause celebre in Alaska. A girl checked it out of the school library and asked her father to identify an unfamiliar word. The word was "motherfucker," and Daddy was on the school board. He tried to have the book pulled from the library, and the librarian refused, and the Anchorage newspaper heard about it and made a fuss. I suppose it was a slow news week.)
Gay had finished her master's degree in Spanish while I was in the army, and we made a deal: she would find a teaching job and support me for two years. If the writing wasn't paying off by then, I'd get a job and the writing would go back to being a serious hobby.
We wanted to move out of the Washington, D.C., area anyhow. During 1968, while Gay was waiting for me to come back from Vietnam, she got nervous watching the glow of flames at night in the riot that followed Martin Luther King's assassination. The crime rate was rising. A woman was killed on our street, knifed by a mugger. And the neighborhood was expensive, for a secondary school teacher's salary plus whatever a neophyte writer could drag in.
We decided to move to Florida. We'd been to the Cape a few times to watch rocket launches, and were both confirmed space junkies. We'd also gone down to visit Keith Laumer after Milford, and his little town of Brooksville looked attractive. Groceries and rent were about half what we were used to paying. We bought an ancient panel van -- cheaper than U-Haul -- and loaded everything we owned inside and on top of it. Keith had said we could stay with him for a week or so, while Gay looked for a job.
Maybe it was foolish to drop everything and move, but it wouldn't be the last time for us, and it did work out all right, despite a serious and expensive accident en route and a disaster soon after we moved into Keith's spare bedroom. Keith and I were sitting by the fire after dinner, talking about asteroid mining, when he suddenly fell over half-paralyzed. He rallied for a few days, but then had a massive stroke, and Gay and I wound up being his caregivers for a few months. The good luck was that Gay got a job teaching Spanish in the tiny town's high school -- there was only one other teacher in the county who could do Spanish, and she was pregnant, so naturally it wouldn't do for the children to be exposed to her. (Of course the students were going at it like bunnies, but the School Board was in deep denial.)
It was an interesting couple of years, even though Gay's teaching situation was horrendous. We made a number of friends who are still close. I wrote a lot of short stories and a pseudonymous adventure "novel," and most of The Forever War and All My Sins Remembered.
I started The Forever War a few days before Keith had his stroke. He and Gay had gone grocery shopping, which took a couple of hours, since he was far from town and only went in when he ran out of beer. I sat down at the dining room table and typed out "Tonight we're going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man." Then I kept typing, not knowing at first whether it was going to be a story or a novel. After a week, I knew it was the novel I'd been waiting to write, an sf treatment of what I'd seen and learned in Vietnam.
(That first line came from a Basic Training experience. We'd been rousted out of bed just before midnight for a night training exercise, shooting blanks while wading through waist-deep snow -- useful training for jungle warfare -- and our reward for two hours of this was to sit in a freezing Quonset hut and try to stay awake during a lecture on commando techniques. The lieutenant in pressed fatigues promised that he would show us eight silent ways to kill people, which included highly technical and silent stuff like hitting someone over the head with a shovel.)
That may have been my most productive period, in terms of volume of work. At one time I saw four of my stories on the newsstand at once. I was getting up at three in the morning and wouldn't quit until I had done at least a thousand words. Those thousand words were slow, about 90% finished copy; I never have been able to write the usual way, blasting out a rough draft and then refining it. Sometimes I worked until afternoon or evening to get the thousand; sometimes, when it was going well, I would write 1500 or 2000 words by noon. (I know these numbers because I kept a log, which I recently found in a box of old manuscripts -- legal-sized sheets of cheap green paper, prematurely brown and dry at the edges.)
I always had several projects going at once back then, which might explain the high productivity. I'd get up in the morning and work at the book or story that seemed most interesting. If I got bogged down, I'd just switch to something else. In another couple of years I would trade that looseness for security, following the pattern that most successful sf writers used then -- sign a contract for two or more books and get half the money up front, and then produce the books to deadline. So when you get up in the morning you don't think "What would I like to write?" You think "How much time do I have left on this one?"
I suppose it's a trap, but the dynamics of the trap are interesting. It takes me about eighteen months, on average, to finish a book, and some years back, in the middle of the Worlds trilogy, we did have enough saved to live on for eighteen months. So I thought I'd escape the trap, and write the book "on spec," on speculation, planning to finish it and then have my agent put the screws to the publisher who had done the first volume, or else sell it to the highest bidder.
In fact, I was sort of escaping the trap by gnawing off my foot. I thought that having the complete manuscript to sell would put me in control of the situation, but in fact, the opposite was true. My agent would send the manuscript out with a price he knew was too high; the editor would wait a couple of months and come back with a counter-offer that he knew was too low, and so back and forth at a glacial rate. The publisher in this situation has all the time in the world; novels aren't exactly perishable commodities. And they know the writer will run out of money before they run out of books.
We wound up settling on a deal I didn't like, but could live with, after a year of haggling. I'd told my agent I wanted at least $100,000, and not to go any lower than $75,000; the publisher finally offered to pay $50,000 plus a $25,000 guarantee for promotion. But when the contract eventually came, months later, there was nothing about the promotion guarantee. The editor said that the publisher wouldn't allow it in the contract (because then everybody would want one), but that their lawyers were drafting a binding "letter of intent." The letter never materialized, of course, so I was essentially hoodwinked into selling a book for half-price. Its promotion budget was in the high three figures. The Worlds trilogy wound up split between two publishers, because I couldn't work with my editor at Viking after that cynical ploy.
My first editor at Viking, Alan Williams, was the best editor I've ever had. After he read Worlds, the first volume, he sent me a four-page single-spaced letter detailing everything he had problems with -- but saying it was my book, after all, and if I wanted I could ignore everything he said. About three quarters of his changes did wind up in the book. He moved on to another firm, though, and I had to give Viking first refusal on Worlds Apart.
I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Going to the Milford had had as profound an effect on Gardner Dozois as it had on me, and we talked with some friends and wound up duplicating it on a smaller scale. The core group was, besides Gardner and me, George Alec Effinger, Ted White, Jack Dann, and my brother Jack (Jay) Haldeman. We met at Jay's place in the Guilford section of Baltimore, so of course the meetings became "the Guilford." Other writers visited occasionally, like Roger Zelazny, Robert Thurston, and Phyllis Eisenstein, but it was mainly the Unholy Six.
We met once or twice a year for several years. The criticism was serious and sometimes severe, but I think what kept us coming back was fellowship rather than education. Baltimore's a good city for raising hell, and we were all young men temporarily cut loose from wives or "significant others." (Jay's wife Alice usually fled the scene when we converged on her house.) Ted White had been doing Mendelian experiments with marijuana for many years, which ultimately resulted in some killer weed and a too-long prison term for Ted.
(Ted sensibly didn't bring out the marijuana until after the last day's work. One time we indulged rather more than we should have, and everyone else was overcome by the traditional "munchies" and swarmed down to the local ice cream joint, but I went upstairs to my typewriter to see what kind of writing I would do, profoundly bent. The story just poured out of me, incredibly fast and smooth, six pages in about ninety minutes. When I woke up the next morning I found I'd written six pages about a man who's a garbage truck; all of his friends know he's a garbage truck, but they don't tell him because they know it would embarrass him. So every day he puts on a coat and tie and goes chugging down the alley. And so forth. In retrospect, I can see it's a good thing the story was so irredeemably bad. It was such easy writing that if it had been any good I would have bought a bale of the stuff, and ultimately wound up slouched in a corner with William Burroughs, shooting up peanut butter.)
What finally did in the Guilford was the same gradual ablation of effect that eventually killed the Milford: the main participants came to know each other's tastes too well. When you presented a story, you pretty much knew what each person would say about it before he opened his mouth.
The last meeting was a grueling one. We all brought novel fragments -- mine was The Forever War -- so both reading and criticism took much longer than usual. The wind-down at the end was amusing. Jay brought out a poker table and a deck of pornographic playing cards from Sweden. There were seven of us, and only six positions at the table, so we set up a typewriter in the corner and proceeded to collaborate on a novel. You had to write at least two pages, usually putting the character into an impossible situation, and then tap somebody on the shoulder and take his place at the poker table while he wrote. (We were playing for toothpicks and had developed macro-rules, like "try to make Jay take all of the cards with the German Shepherd.") We actually wound up with over forty pages of an obscene growth called The Trouble With Smegma. Gardner took it home for safekeeping, but lost it, claiming that it had crawled away under its own power.
Gardner and Jack and I went to one of the last Milfords. Damon and Kate didn't live in Milford anymore, so they held the thing at the Kellogg Conference Center in Kalamazoo. It was memorable for me for several reasons.
One odd and exciting thing was that I was called out of the roundtable discussion for an urgent phone call, which turned out to be from a "book producer" named Lyle Kenyon Engel. Engel had seen my work in Analog magazine and wanted to sign me up to do ten or twelve books around a series character.
I said I couldn't imagine writing ten books about one character, but could probably do three. He said fine; I'll write you a check. I went back to the meeting literally stunned. When I told the company assembled what the phone call had been about, they all applauded. Condolences would have been more in order, as it turned out.
Another oddity that I still have difficulty understanding was a story by Gustav Hasford, which turned out to be the opening chapter of his novel The Short-timers. Harlan Ellison was the first respondent, and he actually stood on a table and said that this was the best thing he had ever seen at a Milford; we should all get down on our knees and thank Hasford for letting us read it, and on and on in that vein. Damon and Kate commented next, and they both liked it, too (it was evidently the story that Hasford had submitted for admission to Milford), and everyone around the circle liked it, until it came to me. I was almost speechless, but did manage to say that I couldn't believe that the person who wrote this silly piece of tripe had ever been in combat. (Hasford made much of being a Vietnam vet.) If memory serves, everyone else liked it except Gardner, who said he'd never been in combat, but he had been in the army, and couldn't buy soldiers acting like that except in a cheesy movie. It did wind up being a movie, Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, which I thought was a silly melodrama, but no doubt made money all around. (Hasford was in the news some fifteen years later, when he was arrested for having stolen thousands of library books, a houseful, from libraries around Los Angeles. I have to admit that the newspaper story filled me with joy.)
The story I brought to Milford was an experimental novella in the form of a "feelie" script, "Fantasy for Six Electrodes and One Adrenaline Drip." I'd sent it to Harlan about a year before, for consideration in The Last Dangerous Visions. Most of the people liked it a lot, and Vonda MacIntyre offered to buy it for the feminist collection Women of Wonder. She'd pay a nickel a word, the most anybody was paying in those days, and I'd be the only male contributor in the book. Harlan said no, the story was on his desk; he just hadn't gotten around to writing an acceptance letter. He would buy it for The Last Dangerous Visions and pay even more. Eventually. I'm still waiting.
(The thing would read as an anachronism now, but if it had actually appeared in the seventies, I might have "invented" cyberpunk.)
Things were getting tough in Brooksville. The principal of Gay's high school was irrational and unpredictable, and teaching under him was a daily chore, which was really hard on Gay, because teaching for her normally is a joy. A few years later we found out the man had been a fraud as well as, to be charitable, mentally unstable. He claimed to be a retired admiral, but had never been in the Navy; his Ph.D. existed only on the piece of paper he had on his wall.
We didn't know that in 1973; all we knew was that we had to get out. I wasn't making enough money for us to live on, even in Brooksville, but we had a couple of escape hatches.
One was Mexico. A couple of weeks after I'd gotten out of the army, we'd dashed down to Guadalajara, where Gay and I both went to school for the summer. (In fact, I'd gotten an "early out for education" from the army, even though all I signed up for was Spanish and drawing. I dropped Spanish after a week.) Then we went back, to Saltillo, Guadalajara, and San Miguel de Allende, a year later.
We could have lived well there. In San Miguel, where Mack Reynolds and some other writers lived, we could have rented a villa for $100 a month, incuding swimming pool and maid. Food cost almost nothing at the mercado; beer was a dime a bottle. I was making four or five hundred a month from my magazine fiction.
But there was another possibility: the Iowa Writers' Workshop, at the University of Iowa. It was, and remains, a kind of Mecca for young serious writers. I wasn't that young, but I was serious. I sent them a copy of War Year and some reviews, which were from prominent journals, and kind, and I outlined our situation: if they could offer me an assistantship, that money along with the GI Bill would keep us going. Otherwise we were headed for Mexico.
They said they could work something out. We rented a U-Haul this time -- prosperity! -- and drove up to find that Iowa in July was even hotter than Florida. I had packed a sweater.
The Workshop didn't know that I was a science fiction writer; if they had, I probably would never have gotten an answer to my letter. The director, Jack Leggett, was a fine writer and critic, but he hated genre fiction with real passion.
I don't know how they do Iowa now, but in the seventies you could pretty much write your own ticket. Every semester you had to take two courses -- "Writer's Workshop" and "Forms of Fiction." The workshop was more or less like a Milford roundtable, directed by more or less famous people. "Forms of Fiction" was a course that every visiting professor taught, and it was loose as a goose -- pick ten or a dozen books that you like, have the students read them and talk about them, give everybody an A. For me, it was more valuable than the workshop, because I already did know how to write, but I didn't have a liberal education. I got to read all those books that English majors have to read for credit, but I did it for fun.
Your other courses could literally be anything -- I could have pursued mathematics or astronomy -- so long as you did produce a novel or a book of short stories over the course of two years. My novel was The Forever War, perhaps the only master's thesis that's won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards.
Most of the first-year graduate students were doing dog work, running mimeograph machines, collating, stapling. I was lucky in having Vance Bourjaily as my advisor. He had read War Year. When I showed up at his office and asked what I should be doing, he looked over his glasses and said, "You're working on another novel, aren't you?" I said yes. "Then go home and write."
It turned out I had won a teaching assistantship, and Iowa handled that wisely. Instead of just grading other people's papers for two years, I did nothing for three semesters but collect my check. Then, the last semester, I had a real teaching load -- two huge classes of "Bonehead English" and one advanced course in science fiction writing.
Bonehead English was actually Rhetoric 10 -- a course required for everyone who had been admitted to the university but didn't have basic reading and writing skills. (Iowa was an "open admissions" state; if you were a resident, they had to let you into the university no matter what.) It was probably the most rewarding teaching experience I'll ever have. There were goof-offs and just plain stupid people. But there were more who were smart enough but just hadn't gotten it, for whatever reason, in high school, and they were intensely motivated. It's really wonderful to teach a class where you can see a real, startling improvement in the students over the course of a semester. I've been a professor at MIT for fourteen years now, and I rarely get that. The kids start out smart and, in spite of my influence, they're still smart thirteen weeks later.
The science fiction course was a lot of fun. I team- taught it with linguistics professor Larry Martin, who became one of my closest friends. We met in a back room at a downtown bar, the Mill, every Wednesday night, for a combination of lecture and workshop. One of the students, Joan Gordon, wound up doing her doctoral dissertation on my work, and turning it into a popular book for the Starmont Reader's Series.
(Larry was the first openly gay man I knew well, and I learned a lot from him about our differences and similarities. He was an odd blend of flinty skeptic and reluctant romantic, and was one of my two or three best friends when he died, too young, in the early nineties.)
When the Iowa semester was almost over, the students wanted to keep meeting, so they formed a science fiction club that still, more than 20 years later, meets at the Mill every Wednesday night. They asked me to name it for them, which was a mistake, since I was still their teacher, and they sort of had to go along with whatever I said. I came up with Science Fiction League of Iowa Students -- SFLIS. So it remains.
My best teachers at the Iowa Workshop were Bourjaily, William Price Fox, Ray Carver, Stanley Elkin, and Stephen Becker. I had a workshop with John Cheever, a kindly man who was going through a really drunk period -- his doctor had advised him to go to Iowa to get away from the boozy New York crowd. Bad advice. In Iowa during the winter, there's nothing to do but drink. It's all you can do to get from bar to bar through the howling blizzard. Cheever sort of nodded through class and said supportive things when pressed. (Everybody but me seemed to know that Cheever had formed a romantic attachment with one of my classmates, a guy who was one of the best writers and has gone on to much-deserved fame. This was before Cheever had "come out," so the scandal was doubly delicious.)
Elkin was a bitter, sarcastic man, wonderfully intelligent and perceptive, but he hated science fiction with a passion approaching rage. He said it was impossible to do anything of lasting worth with it. Rather than pick a fight with him, I wrote a long non-sf piece that eventually, fifteen years later, became the beginning of the novel 1968.
We became friends the last week he was at Iowa. We'd all gathered at Jane Howard's house for an early Christmas party, and it turned out that Elkin was a pretty good singer and piano player. So while everybody else was engaged in literary shmoozing and intrigue, Stan and I shared a bottle of Scotch and belted out old Al Jolson songs and show tunes.
Ray Carver was the teacher whose work I most admired, but I don't think I ever saw him sober. (He and Cheever lived in apartments on two different floors in the Student Union, and it was common knowledge that they often woke up in one another's rooms -- not because of romance, but because they had drunk and smoked too much to find the elevator.) He was immensely supportive of everyone, but was very vague as a teacher. I don't think he was sure how he did what he did, which of course is no handicap to the creation of art. That unsureness manifested itself in his teaching, too; he was reluctant to say anything was bad. Having read his autobiographical writing, I suspect that he was leery of causing trauma by an offhand comment, so most of what he said was on the order of "I really like this. I'm not sure why, but I like it."
Ray's marriage was failing, and he flew back to Los Angeles two or three times a month to try to patch things up. (He had made a deal with TWA, that he would write an article for their in-flight magazine in exchange for an open ticket between Iowa City and LA.) It didn't work out, but he formed a friendship with my classmate Tess Gallagher, which wound up being a storybook romance, well documented. I last saw Ray at a Harvard reading, a few months before he died, and he seemed happy and at peace, even knowing he didn't have much time. He stayed sober through the alcoholic reception, holding a glass of wine and sipping occasionally.
Stephen Becker came to Iowa as a quick replacement for William Price Fox -- Bill's nine-year-old boy had died of cancer, and he couldn't face a classroom. Steve was interested in my science fiction, having written a little bit himself when he was young. He was the most intelligent and erudite of my teachers, with a wonderful smoldering energy in the classroom. He swung around on crutches -- a degenerative disease had crippled him in his thirties -- and dispensed encouragement and sarcasm in about equal measure. He had nothing but contempt for the workshop's coolness toward genre fiction. Why not write something that someone outside of academia will actually read?
About five years after the workshop, Steve got in touch with me and suggested that we collaborate on a science fiction novel. Gay and I went to visit him and his wife Mary for a week at their lovely place in Tortola, and we outlined the book and wrote a few chapters. We fiddled with it over the next few years, but it didn't really gel, although some parts that he wrote are excellent. He had gone to China on a Fulbright, and revisited some years afterwards, and used his knowledge of that culture to invent a unique Chinese-on-Mars future scenario.
I had a delicious piece of revenge on the Iowa anti- science fiction bias. The highly respected critic Leonard Michaels came into town for a week, and deigned to do one workshop. I don't recall whether students were selected by lot, seniority, or ability, but anyhow I was one of them. I presented the first dozen or so pages of the novel Mindbridge, but Michaels only had to read one page. He refused to read any more, but did write a page- long vociferous sermon warning me that my writing career would go down the drain if I didn't stop writing this crap and employ my small talents in some more legitimate direction.
A few months later, the paperback rights to the novel sold for the most ever paid, up to then, for a single sf novel. House-buying money. Perhaps more than Michaels made with his criticism.
And then there was the saga of Naked Came the Merman. The title comes from a book now mercifully forgotten, Naked Came the Stranger. A bunch of newspaper writers decided to fabricate a sleazy best-seller; they all got together for a long weekend and each wrote a chapter, and it worked.
I'd done two of the pseudonymous adventure novels for Lyle Kenyon Engel, which were about Attar the Merman, a guy who has gills and can talk telepathically to porpoises and whales. I just couldn't face writing a third one. So I threw this gauntlet out to my fellow workshoppers: I'd outlined the book, A Cold Place to Die, chapter by chapter. I'd pay a hundred dollars, against a pro ratum of future income, to anybody who would come over on Easter break and crank out a chapter.
They came, and I paid, and the result was a total disaster. I should have foreseen it. They were good writers, but they weren't experienced: they could only write in their own styles; I'd given them two Attar books to study, but they were incapable of pastiche. So I had ten wildly variant pieces of useless rough draft. I cobbled the book together, but it was pretty horrible. The series quietly closed after two installments.
Attar wasn't my only bad experience with series writing. Before we struck it rich with Mindbridge, I'd signed up to do two "original" novels in the Star Trek series.
James Blish had started out the Trek industry by doing book versions of the television episodes, and writing one related novel. I'd known Jim slightly some years before -- he had a good baritone voice, and we sang Tom Lehrer songs together for an hour at a strange party in Washington. He was a good serious writer, but I understand he took on the Trek silliness for fast money to care for his family, when he found out he was dying of throat cancer.
After Jim died I was writing to Fred Pohl, who then edited the series, on an unrelated matter, and added as an apologetic P.S., "Who is writing Trek now that Jim is dead?" He wrote back, "You are."
We haggled over the price for more than a year. We finally made a deal: they wouldn't pay my price for one novel, but would go twice that for two of them. Had I learned anything from Attar the Merman? No. I signed.
A funny aspect to it was that of all the hundreds of sf writers around, I was probably one of the very least qualified to write a Star Trek novel, because I'd been drafted during the first year of the series, and they didn't let me carry a TV set around in Vietnam, so I knew almost nothing except that James Kirk acted like a terrible actor and Spock always raised one eyebrow and said, "Fascinating." So I got a huge stack of Star Trek fan publications and immersed myself in their cockeyed world, and I watched reruns every day, until I'd eventually seen every episode at least once.
(For part of this time I was staying with my parents in Tarrytown, NY, along with my niece Lori, who was then about eleven. Every afternoon at three, she and I would watch Star Trek together. I thought she enjoyed it, but toward the end of our stay my mother overheard her say to a playmate, "Oh, it's three o'clock. I gotta go watch that dumb show with Uncle Joe.") When the contract finally came through for the first novel, which I called ... Now You See Them (renamed Planet of Judgment), I was really primed. I wrote the thing in a white heat, finishing it in three months. But then I sat down to do the second and there was nothing there. I had proven I could write a Star Trek novel. There was no reason to write another.
We'd gotten the Mindbridge money by then. I wrote Paramount, offering to buy back my contract. They wrote back, in essence, "We don't want your money. We want our book." So I sat down and ground it out. It was nine months of morning sickness. People have told me that World Without End is a better book than the first one. I wouldn't know. I've never read it.
Every time I've undertaken a purely commercial book, I've wound up making less money than I would have earned from a straight one. Not counting the bad feeling, wasting time. But I had two agents who had a professionally reasonable bird-in-the-hand attitude. My agent now, Ralph Vicinanza, is good at making money but knows that money is less important to me than the kind of work I do. Last year he set up a high six-figure deal for me, the most money I would ever have made on a book, but Gay and I talked it over and decided that at 52 I need the year more than we need the money. Ralph's a good friend and didn't try to talk me into it, and for his friendship got ten percent of nothing.
My previous agent, Kirby McCauley, was a good friend, too, but like a lot of us he's impressed by famous people. Steven Spielberg called him up and asked for me to write the novelization of Poltergeist. Kirby called me at Michigan State University, where I was doing a week of teaching in the Clarion Writers' Workshop, and told me to get my ass to Los Angeles. I did wait two days to finish my week, but then, since I'm also impressed by famous people, paid an arm and a leg to get an instant flight to LA.
It was odd from the beginning. I'm hard of hearing, like most ex-demolition engineers, and when I was introduced to Spielberg I didn't catch his name. I didn't know what he looked like, so I thought some flunky was leading me around, explaining the various sets. He seemed well informed, but was reasonably modest in demeanor, and I thought he was some kind of unit director or continuity person. When we went back to his office, I realized I'd spent an hour with the great man himself.
I gave them a tentative okay and they gave me the script. It was absolutely appalling. Spielberg had cobbled it together with a couple of friends during a Writers' Guild strike. But it was good money for the time, and I agreed to their conditions: send them a chapter a week, along with an outline of the next chapter. Spielberg's assistants Kathy Kennedy and Frank Marshall would handle the project, which pleased me. They were both super people, Hollywood energy and East Coast manners.
What eventually happened was a funny-in- retrospect disaster. I'd been up-front with Frank and Kathy about my lack of regard for the script, and so my notes that went along with each week's chapter were not exactly reverent. About halfway through the movie there's an awful scene where the young boy Robbie wakes up in the middle of the night and there's a terrible storm, actually a tornado. He walks hypnotized down the hall toward a shattered window. Outside the window is a huge old tree that has a slippery red mouth full of teeth, a vagina dentata that for some reason he seeks. His dad saves him from the mean old thing and nobody else in the nieghborhood notices that there has been a tornado. What was going on here was that Spielberg had constructed a $1.5 million special-effects tree, and by god it was going to be used in the movie no matter what. But I wrote to Kathy that there was no way I could shoehorn that kind of silliness into a novel. "I'm sure it will work in the movie," I told her diplomatically, "but in cold black type it sucks eggs."
She evidently agreed -- or more likely, didn't care one way or the other -- but the week after I finished the book, Spielberg got around to sorting through the memoes and, of course, took offense. I got a panicky message on my answering machine from my agent: "You told Steven Spielberg he sucks eggs?" -- and Spielberg kicked me off the project and hired another, faster, writer. I've never read that book, either.
(My version of Poltergeist did get printed into bound galleys before Spielberg killed it; I've signed two or three of them for collectors. My most rare book, by a couple of orders of magnitude. Possibly not my worst.)
I suspect that Spielberg had heard of my name through his film-school buddy George Lucas. I'd worked with George a year or two before, both of us advisors to Walt Disney's Imagineering outfit, while they were planning the Epcot theme park, or themeless park, in Orlando.
The Disney people wanted George to come up with a "tour of the Solar System" attraction, and they asked him to name a science fiction writer he would like to work beside. My name came up and I was available: Star Wars meets The Forever War.
George was a marvelous man to work with, full of ideas and enthusiasm. Far from egotistical, he seemed to be always revelling in delight at having all these great toys to play with, and the delight was infectious. Even some of the crusty old Disney hands caught it.
In four weeks we brought together a pretty good package; script, continuity, physical description -- and along the way I picked up from the Disney experts a goldmine of esoteric minutia, from audio-animatronics to queue control (how to make people think they're being entertained when they're actually standing in line). Gay and I made a couple of lasting friendships. But finally the project died for lack of a sponsor.
What I hadn't known was that Disney doesn't just write a big check and make a theme park happen. Private firms finance the construction of the various pavilions and attractions in return for a lease, usually ten years, on the income and good will that they generate. We were expecting Kodak to pick up the tab, but they evidently decided they could sell more film and cameras at the Imagination Pavilion.
I suggested space outfits like General Dynamics and Rocketdyne, but that was ridiculous. They don't need a "public image"; their only customers are governments. For the $35-50 million that our space ride would have cost, you could buy about a hundred politicians.
Not long afterward, I had another brush with Hollywood, but through a circuitous route, public television and avant-garde stage. The Forever War had been optioned by the Chicago public television station, who proposed to do it as a four-part miniseries. I had a few meetings with Stuart Gordon, the director, and it looked pretty exciting: the production was going to be lavish; it was the number-one budget item for the next couple of years.
Then Reagan got elected, and public (or at least political) support for the arts was slashed. The station, its annual budget halved, had to drop the miniseries. But Stuart Gordon didn't want to drop The Forever War. In the course of outlining how to break up the story into four parts, I'd told him that the last part would be the simplest to shoot -- you could almost do it as a stage play, with two or three sets.
It turned out that Stuart was also director of the Organic Theater Company, and he tossed down a gauntlet: you write the last part as a stage play, and I'll have it produced.
The timing could have been better. I had just accepted a visiting professorship in the Writing Department at MIT, and I wound up commuting between Boston and Chicago. I would teach on Tuesday and Wednesday, then spend Thursday through Monday working on the play in Chicago, then grab the red-eye back to Boston Monday night. A lot of my students' papers were graded on the plane, bus, and subway.
(It would be a lot easier nowadays, with laptops. I had a computer then, an early Macintosh, but it was tied to the apartment, with a printer the size of a compact car. In Chicago they supplied me with an electric typewriter, but I also traveled with a 1929 Royal, which I still use occasionally. So the final script wound up an ungainly montage of computer printout, two different typescripts, and handwritten emendations.)
The play was fun, and moderately successful. It ran for six weeks and made back its nut, even though it had been Organic's most expensive play, with $75,000 in special effects alone. I made relatively little off it, for a large investment of time and work, though. Good experience, but not one I'd care to repeat. So I said good- bye to Stuart, leaving the door open in case something a little more remunerative should come along.
Two years later, it did. Stuart called and said he was out in Hollywood, had made two successful movies in a row, and the producers had given him carte blanche: If I would write a movie for him, he could guarantee that it was made. I said sure, if he could meet the Writers' Guild minimum. (I'd joined the Guild years before; I'd done some sworn-to-secrecy script doctoring and a TV script for a Disney pilot that never aired.)
Stuart said he wanted to do a science-fiction adaptation of the Iliad. That sounded fine to me; always steal from the best sources. But he sent me a page-and-a- half outline which had a few things that Homer inexplicably had left out -- a love interest, some nasty Commies, robots the size of silos, ghastly pseudo-science, and a happy ending.
Well, Hollywood. I really wanted to write a movie, and I was sure I could talk Stuart out of the worst parts -- the same attitude that most doomed marriages begin with.
Six rewrites later, I was almost ready to admit I'd been wrong. I couldn't even talk Stuart into an unembarrassing title. I wanted "The Mechanics"; he insisted on "Robojox." (It finally wound up being "Robot Jox," after the people who did "Robocop" asked whether we wanted to spend a lot of dreary time in court.) I would try to change the science into something reasonable; Stuart would change it back to Saturday-morning cartoon stuff. I tried to make believable, reasonable characters, and Stuart would insist on throwing in clichés and caricatures. It was especially annoying because it was a story about soldiers, and I was the only person around who'd ever been one.
In fact, he was right and I was wrong. But it wasn't until we were actually shooting the movie that that became clear.
I thought I'd been fired from the project when I opened a FedEx package and found a new script to the movie, written by a friend of Stuart's, which seemed to incorporate everything I'd fought to keep out. I read a dozen pages and threw it away. An hour later, Stuart called and asked innocently what I thought of the new "rewrite." I told him exactly what I thought, which was about as impolite as I've ever been on the phone -- but I'd just seen a year and a half of my work trashed. He said, well, he was sorry I felt that way, but would I do him the favor of reading through the script and writing a critique?
I was glad to. What the hell, I was off the project. I wrote fourteen blistering single-spaced pages and sent it off, expecting no reply and getting none.
About four months later, Christmas Eve, Stuart called from Rome. The producers had seen the critique and sided with me. How soon could I get to Rome? They were going to start principal photography and wanted me on hand for rewrites.
We flew over on January 2nd, and I have to admit that I was impressed -- floored, actually. They put us up in a $400-a-day suite on the Via Veneto and, before we had a chance to unpack a suitcase, whisked us out to the sound stages. They were the biggest in Europe, the ones where Clint Eastwood had filmed the classic spaghetti westerns. And inside, they were full of Hollywood magic.
Futuristic cars and robots and rooms. Million- dollar sets that I had made up on a whim, in a few words on my $35 Royal! A wardrobe room with over 100 costumes for the crowd scenes.
We met the male and female leads, Gary Graham and Anne-Marie Johnson, and we all liked each other from the beginning. The first three weeks of shooting were going to be mostly with them. Of course a movie company doesn't have all the actors show up and stand around idle; they first collected all the scenes where Gary and Anne-Marie were alone, and we shot them in whatever order. We developed a loose collaboration schedule. We'd talk about the next day's shoot, usually over dinner (which, Italian-style, started late and ran past midnight), and then I'd take my notes and go home and type up the revised script on the little Royal. The hotel would photocopy them and hand them to Gary and Anne-Marie when they came down for their limo at six. They'd memorize the new lines and blocking on the way to the sound stages, in about forty minutes.
I've never needed more than four or five hours' sleep at night, so I'd go down for breakfast at eight or nine, and then return to the room to work on other parts of the script. Most days, I'd go out to the sound stages after lunch, talk to Stuart and the others, and watch the "dailies," the replay of the day's work. Then nap for an hour or so before going off to shoulder my load of pasta. It was fun and exciting, but we could have been in Peoria, except for the great food. In three weeks we had only one day off to see Rome. (But I gained about eight Roman pounds.)
We could have stayed on longer, but had previously-made obligations back in the States, and as we were saying our goodbyes, Stuart pinpointed what we'd been doing wrong. He said, "Joe, our problem is that you're writing a movie for adults that children can enjoy, but I'm directing a movie for children that adults can enjoy!"
It shows in the movie, oil and water. Some people enjoy it, but to me it's as if I'd had a child who started out well and then sustained brain damage. Most of the scenes that I worked on with Gary and Anne-Marie look like a normal movie; many of the others look painfully cartoonish.
Before I'd started on the movie project, I wrote the first two books of the Worlds trilogy, Worlds and Worlds Apart. I was resisting the last book, for reasons that had become clear while I was writing the second.
The idea behind the trilogy was pretty simple, just turning a character cliché completely around. The protagonist of most old-fashioned science fiction stories is a youngish male, 25-35, who is presented with a problem of a physical nature that he ultimately solves because he alone gets it. So I thought it would be fun to write a science fiction novel -- "hard" science fiction -- that was about an old woman, who is presented with a philosophical problem, which she solves just by being who she is.
Sometimes I try out characters, structures, or situations in short stories, before I risk them in a novel. The prototype for Marianne O'Hara, the protagonist of the trilogy, was Abigail Bemis, in the short story "Tricentennial," which won the Hugo Award in 1976.
So I was pretty sure the character worked in a short story, but I wasn't sure about doing a whole novel about a person so fundamentally different from me. Somewhere along the line I broadened the notion so as to start the story when she was young, and show her becoming who she would have to be in order to solve the problem. Because I write slowly (and because trilogies seem to sell and stay in print), I decided to do it in three volumes.
It belatedly occurs to me that in the course of bringing Marianne up from a teenager to a centenarian, I unleashed a veritable catalogue of science fiction themes: utopia, dystopia, end-of-the-world, post-holocaust, Luddite versus high-tech lifestyles, weird plague, feral children, space industrialization, generation ship, planetary colonization, first contact, and who knows what else. My only excuse is that I am a science fiction writer. If I were Henry James, my readers might have enjoyed a hundred dinner parties instead.
The problem that became apparent during Worlds Apart, when I advanced Marianne up to and through my own age, was that any middle-aged man who writes about an older woman is, at some level, writing about his mother, especially if she's still alive. My own mother was alive but not well, and living with me -- she'd had a stroke that robbed her of speech and mobility, and Gay and I and my brother took her in, rather than have her stay in a nursing home. By this time, I'd accepted an adjunct professorship at MIT, teaching only during the fall semester. My brother cared for our mother during the time I was teaching, and sometimes longer, which gave us a welcome break from the trying routine.
(Let me acknowledge that we started this deal more out of ignorance than charity. Running a one-patient nursing home is incredibly expensive and a never-ending drain of time, energy, and emotion. If any of my friends start making noises about it, I tell them no! If you really love the parent, put her or him in the nearest nursing home and allot several hours a day for visiting, and budget lavish amounts for presents and entertainment. You save time and money and the parent has medical professionals and proper equipment around all the time.)
So my mother and I had essentially reversed roles, with her now dependent on me, and my feelings toward her were complex and confused. We'd been closer than most mothers and sons for most of my life (everyone should forget the years 12-15), and especially close since we started enjoying each other's company as adults. Parts of Worlds Enough and Time, the last volume, dealt with that in various ways -- one way directly, when the elder of Marianne's husbands has a stroke.
When someone asked Ernest Hemingway what was the best training for a novelist, he said "an unhappy childhood." I somehow got along without that, at least as far as my parents were concerned. My father was well- intentioned if distant, absorbed by work and alcohol, but my mother lived for her two boys. She indulged us in our various, and they were various, interests -- she stitched my childish verses into books, and made blank books for me to fill with long cartoon stories; she led me into oil painting and then watercolor and ceramics; bought me music lessons and whipped me into practicing. I had a telescope and microscope, and a chemistry set that took up most of my bedroom (much of which was financed by selling gunpowder and other pyrotechnics to the local kids).
I bought a bicycle and a larger telescope with "paper route" money. Most of that money actually came from gambling. Mother and I always played penny-ante poker while we waited in the car for my music lessons, and I applied what she had taught me to the neighborhood kids. I also made a couple of dollars a week over weekends giving science lectures to the local kids, whose parents would gladly part with a dime to get them out of the house for a couple of hours. The children came willingly, trusting that I would blow something up or dissect some poor animal.
I suppose I was socially unhappy enough to satisfy Hemingway. Like most of the science fiction writers I know, I was a total geek, much more at home with books than with other children. I wasn't good at any sports, and my only friends were other bookworms. I loved summer, because I could haunt the used bookstores in downtown Washington and spend lazy hours sitting in the back yard with a stack of books and a pitcher of lemonade. It was mostly science fiction -- I would zip through two books a day -- but before puberty struck I had also worked my way through several elementary college texts on astronomy and chemistry, and had at least skimmed every volume of the encyclopedia.
(Again like most sf writers, I was precocious. In the fifth grade I was hauled to the principal's office to repeat a test under supervision, the substitute teacher sure I had somehow cheated, but in fact I could read 2500 words a minute with "100% comprehension"-- that is, I could skim a text and retain enough to answer the kind of questions a fifth-grader would be asked -- and so they gave me a special IQ test, and I scored 188. Now I know that all those numbers only signify special competence in taking multiple-choice tests, but at the time I thought it proved that I was a genius, which is not a finding that would surprise any bookish child. It added to the sense of isolation I had from the other children, which in turn gave me more time to devote to my various enthusiasms.)
My mother died a week after I finished Words Enough and Time, just after midnight on my birthday. I would have thought it harder to have a loved one die at home, but the personal closure made it easier than in a hospital. I played cards with her until she couldn't hold them any more, and then played guitar for her while she faded in and out, and after her final convulsion I closed her eyes. When the hearse came to take her away, her long-time aide Mary Robinson, a perceptive black woman of about 60, said, "You know she hung on. She give you the only birthday present she could give you. She give you your freedom."
Mother's confinement at home, and the steady chaos it generated, paradoxically produced one of the best working environments I've ever had. She had 22 hours' coverage by three aides, working in shifts, but I took care of her from six until eight in the morning. She read newspapers a bit -- every week I got her all five of the sensationalist tabloids, and we'd laugh over the alien abductions and Elvis sightings. But mostly we played cards, poker and Oh, Hell. I was totally saturated with card-playing after a couple of years, enough so that the sound of a deck being shuffled would make me cringe, but for Mother it leveled the playing field, so to speak. Her only vocabulary was "yes," "no," the numbers up to four, and "shit." That's adequate for most card games. (We also played poker for an hour or so after dinner; after five years of that, I didn't care if I never saw a card again.)
When the aide showed up at eight in the morning, I fled. I had rented a shoebox office, about five by eight feet, on the other side of town. I had various bicycle routes worked out, from 12 to 25 miles, so I spent an hour or two pedaling -- sort of thinking about the novel, sort of just enjoying the scenery and the exercise. I'd stop at a convenience store a block from the office and buy a pint of orange juice. I'd drink that down while the coffee was percolating.
There was nothing in the office but a table and chair, a manual typewriter and a percolator. Not even a dictionary. The walls of the room were papered, though, with my notes. The novel, The Hemingway Hoax, had taken a lot of research, most of it done at the Hemingway collection in the JFK Library outside of Boston, while I was teaching at MIT. The printout of the notes was easily half as long as the book turned out to be.
The writing was almost effortless. Since I had a couple of hours in the morning to think, before I sat down with Mother at six, everything was completely plotted out. Almost all of the research was long since done. I would sit there charged with endorphins from the bicycle ride; sugar and caffiene from the orange juice and coffee, and in two or two and a half hours write between 500 and 1000 words. Then I'd get on my bike and call Gay, and we'd decide which restaurant we'd like to meet at for lunch. We'd have a leisurely hour together, and then I'd usually bike home. (The weather in Gainesville is extremely consistent, so I could follow this pattern 95% of the time. It never rains in the morning unless there's a tropical disturbance; in the summer it always rains about two in the afternoon.)
That's a lot of bicycling, but it has been a passion since I was a kid, with the exception of those crucial teenage years when you have to have a car or you don't exist. When I got to college I faced the absurdity of driving two miles to a parking lot where I had to walk a mile to class, so I got back on the bike and have been on one since.
(Most of this essay is being written during a literal break in the middle of a coast-to-coast bicycle trip. Gay and I set off to bicycle from St. Augustine to San Diego, but I fell in Alabama and broke my collarbone. Starting over soon.)
The Hemingway Hoax was the first of a four-book contract Kirby McCauley had negotiated with Morrow/Avon, and it looked like a perfect deal: four years' work at most, since the first novel was short, and the collection was almost complete, but enough money to live on for six or seven years. It was especially sweet because Avon owned the rights to five of my backlist novels, and this would provide an incentive to keep them in print.
Wrong on several counts. The most important one was that science fiction publishing was undergoing a sea change.
When I started out, back in the Milford days, a writer's backlist was an annuity, a pension plan. After you'd written a dozen or twenty novels, a lot of your income appeared automatically, from reprints and foreign editions. It was best if you did keep on writing, to ensure the vitality of your backlist, but the stands were full of books by people who'd written only one book, like Walter Miller, or had been dead for decades, like Olaf Stapledon. But that was when there were only a hundred or so science fiction writers, and fewer than two dozen who did nothing else for a living.
The universe had changed when Kirby wangled that four-book contract. The Science Fiction Writers of America had over a thousand members, most of whom would write for food. And publishers had found out that if you put a space ship or a dragon on the cover, a book would sell a certain number of copies, no matter how bad it was. (Or how good. Really experimental books are a hard sell, but sometimes you can put a space ship on the cover.)
A publisher could buy forty beginners' sf novels for what they paid for one of mine. There was no risk, and very little expense, since you didn't have to promote or advertise the titles. They'd stay on the stands for six or eight weeks, make a few bucks, and disappear.
And they squeezed the backlist out of existence. Over a thousand new titles appear every year, so there's no room for old ones. The publishers are making good safe money, so there's no motivation for them to change.
I was safe for a few years, but this new reality destroyed the sales of my books. The rule of thumb used to be that the promotion budget of a book was about the size of the author's advance. Six figures would have bought a lot of advertising. But none of these received any treatment different from a run-of-the-mill sf novel. They didn't even print enough copies to earn back a fraction of the advance.
Perhaps it's a measure of the maturation of the genre that it's beginning to mimic the pattern of mainstream literary publishing. Most first novels sell for an advance that's less than a migrant farm worker makes in a season, but every now and then a first novel will go for six or even seven figures, and the publisher will use that fact as part of the book's promotion. If the book earns out, the author may keep making that kind of money. But usually it won't, and he or she slides back toward minimum wage.
In my case, the professorship at MIT provides a safety net. The funny thing is that I initially turned down the job, since it was apparent after the first trial year that it represented a net loss in income, because teaching does take time and energy away from writing. Of course I like the cachét of being "an MIT professor" -- though writing is not exactly quantum mechanics -- and we love New England in the fall, and bennies like health and dental insurance and a pension plan don't normally enter into a freelance writer's life.
Besides, after fourteen years, it's become part of whatever I am. As frustrated and discouraged as I sometimes get with teaching, and any teacher who doesn't must be on some potent drug, I still look forward to every September the way a gardener looks forward to spring. A new beginning; a fresh crop.
Speaking of potent drugs, I've used up a lot of space here and I haven't made any reference to anything but a casual brush with marijuana. Could a writer have actually made it through the last third of the twentieth century without having some terrible habit to confess?
My only period of regular illegal drug use was a few months in Vietnam, when I was in a hospital convalescing from wounds, taking physical therapy for torn-up leg and knees.
When I got to Vietnam they made me a "combat engineer, pioneer" -- which they told us meant we were sort of like infantry, but too dumb to carry a rifle, so they gave us a shovel. Actually, our primary tools were high explosives and chain saws -- and yes, some were dumb enough to be killed by both. (The man who died from his own chain saw may have been a bizarre suicide. We were working on a slippery hillside and it appeared that he had fallen on the blade and nearly cut off his leg before it stalled; he died of shock and blood loss before a helicopter could come. But all of our saws had dead-man switches; all you had to do was let go of the trigger, and it would stop.)
The fighting was pretty fierce in the months following the Tet Offensive of 1968. I arrived incountry on 29 February, a couple of weeks after that all-out battle, and hadn't been out in the field long before it became obvious that almost nobody was going to get out alive and whole. It was like World War One in various ways, including the death rate and the soldier's prayer for the "million-dollar wound," that would be bad enough to take him out of combat, but not serious enough to ruin his life.
That's what happened to me. I'd survived from March through September with only superficial injuries, and some of the guys were calling me "Lucky" instead of "Professor." (That's the nickname they give to almost anybody who has a college education and yet is dumb enough to wind up in combat.)
We surprised a largish North Vietnamese position, and overran it with no loss of life on our side. There were about 150 GI's in the operation, and six combat engineers -- an officer, a topkick, and four of us lesser mortals.
All four of us were demolition men, though technically the squad was only allowed one. (It was a bonus of an extra hundred or so a month, so we rotated the title.) Being demo men, we were given an odd assignment: guarding the enemy's "DX pile."
"DX" is army slang for "destroy this." In our artillery fire bases, or any semi-permanent post, we had a place to put rounds that were not trustworthy; that had been dropped or soaked or dinged. That was the DX pile, and when we abandoned a post, the last person to leave was a demolition man, who would blow up the DX pile from a safe distance.
When our topkick saw the enemy DX pile, which was as tall as a man -- artillery rounds, satchel charges, grenades, and garlands of .51 caliber machine gun ammunition --he was justifiably nervous. He asked the major in charge of the operation to move the GI's away so we could "blow it in place," which is what you usually did with enemy ordnance: carefully put some high explosive next to it, and get behind something solid before you push the button. It's child's play for the enemy to boobytrap an artillery round or grenade, since after all they are designed to explode.
Anybody who's read Starship Troopers knows that intelligent officers listen to their NCO's, but this major was a jerk. He had helicopters coming with a special lunch, spaghetti and meatballs and lemonade, and he wanted his boys to have their just culinary reward, and then a little nap, and around three he'd have them fall back and let us do our bomb disposal thing. Meanwhile, have a squad of your boys guard the DX pile so nobody plays with it.
It was boobytrapped, with a time-delay or a radio- frequency fuse. After we'd been standing guard for thirty or forty minutes, it suddenly blew.
If it had worked well, it might have killed dozens of people, maybe a hundred, sitting around eating their spaghetti and meatballs. But only a small fraction of the ordnance actually cooked, so the only people killed were engineers: all of my squad but me.
It's hard to remember, let alone describe, what that explosion felt like. In one instant I sustained a couple of hundred small puncture wounds, a couple of dozen serious bullet and shrapnel wounds, and one killer -- a .51 caliber machine gun bullet to the thigh. The surgeon later told me he'd never taken one out of a person before. They usually just blow off your leg and keep going. (When a round goes off just sitting there, not confined to a gun's chamber, it carries a lot less energy.)
I think only Doc, our medic, was killed outright, his legs blown off. My best friend Farmer had a bad abdominal wound, but evidently lived long enough to die in a hospital. Crowder lost a foot but probably had other wounds; the next day I saw him wheeled out of post-op with a sheet over his face. The explosion didn't knock me down. I was deafened, and staggered a couple of steps, realized I was covered with blood, and then my knees gave out. (One of them still holds a piece of shrapnel the size of a dime.) I called for a medic and struggled with my belt buckle, slippery with blood, and the artillery medic (also named Doc) came over and helped me expose the worst area. It looked bad, genitals torn up, a three-inch-wide crater in my thigh, femoral artery spurting. The medic moved on. I thought I had been triaged; he had decided I was going to die anyhow, and so he went on to the others. In fact, the others were in worse shape than me; he'd gone on to try to save them.
The passage of time got strange as I faded into shock, but I guess it was only a couple of minutes before the medic came back and packed my wounds to control the bleeding. Some GI's elevated my feet, and four of them held a blanket to shade me from the sun. I remember asking my sergeant for a towel, because I was crying, which embarrassed me. When I wiped my face with it, it came back soaked with blood. That didn't do much for my morale, either, but it turned out to be just a torn earlobe, and perhaps blood from someone else. I think Doc had been between me and the explosion.
They loaded us, dead and alive, aboard a helicopter -- the first time I'd flown in one with the doors closed -- and took us to a MASH unit outside of Ban Me Thuot. They changed my dressings and gave me a few shots and trundled me out to a C-130 cargo plane that was straining at the leash. I wound up in a big hospital in Tuy Hoa, where I was in and out of surgery for a week. I remember after the first surgery I was glad to see I still had both legs, and then a surgeon told me I was probably going to lose one. That would have been my amateur opinion, too; it smelled bad and was popular with the flies who shared the recovery room. But after a couple more surgeries and gallons of antibiotics, I kept most of the original equipment.
(Here's a July 2004 footnote to that experience. )
There was a strange and disturbing letter waiting when I got back from two weeks in Maine, sent to both my Florida and MIT addresses. No return address; no identification.
It quotes a detailed description of the time I was wounded in Vietnam. No url, but I googled a little and found it in this "long autobiography" attachment to my webpage.
He used the Freedom of Information Act extensively to check the details of the story (which he calls "A nice Science-Fiction _Story_ of yours"), and uncovered one aspect both surprising and gratifying -- the three men with me whom I thought had died of their wounds in fact survived.
(When I returned to my unit for outprocessing after more than five months in hospitals, people were startled. The supply sergeant, one of the first people I saw, said he thought all of us had died, and I guess others did, too -- I wrote a couple of letters to my sergeant out in the field, from the hospital, but they may have been lost.)
It had never occurred to me to check. I "remembered" two of them being dead. Sergeant Crowder was wheeled out of the post-op ward with a sheet over his head; that was probably a case of mistaken identity due to drugs and mental state. The other was in the helicopter that evacuated us, wrapped up tightly in a poncho (which we used instead of body bags), All I could see, as I lay on the floor of the helicopter, was the soles of his boots, unmoving. Now I wonder, grotesque as it sounds, whether it might have been just the legs; one man had both blown off. They wouldn't just leave them on the ground.
My anonymous informant quotes the official description of the explosion that I also received from the army a month ago, an interesting coincidence. It's hearsay and inaccurate, but of course there's no way for him to know that.
He also informs me that I don't have a Purple Heart. In fact, I have it right here. Yellowing mimeograph of orders cut 8 May 69 at 91st Evac Hospital in Tuy Hoa. The actual War Office certificate is 23 May 69. That was months after I returned from Vietnam -- I was surprised that I didn't have one, and asked about it, and in due course it arrived. So if I want to go to work for the Post Office, I get 10-point preference.
I suppose that the record he accessed was written before the award; it's unlikely that the army would bother to update such things.
Anyhow, it shows that freedom of information has nothing to do with quality of information. And war is the province of chaos.
After a week or so I was able to get into a wheelchair, and found out that the place had a library. The Red Cross people who ran it were switching over from Dewey Decimal to Library of Congress numbers, which was something I had done back in real life, when I worked in the math library my senior year. So I spent a few hours a day doing that curiously mundane task. It helped distract me from the pain, which was intense and constant.
The day I graduated from wheelchair to crutches, the town of Tuy Hoa came under attack, the Viet Cong expressing their disapproval of an election. So the hospital was suddenly filled with civilian casualties, and every soldier who could be moved was evacuated immediately. I'd been scheduled to go to Tokyo for physical therapy, and then on back to the States, but my emergency orders sent me to Cam Rahn Bay, the 6th Convalescent Center.
It was pretty obviously a mistake, since almost nobody else there was wounded. It was full of people recovering from malaria and venereal disease. But of course the army doesn't make mistakes. The first morning I was ordered to fall out at dawn, on crutches, for calesthenics and a mile run. (When it was demonstrated that I couldn't do even one jumping jack without falling down, they allowed me to push a broom around in the morning instead of exercising.)
This is how I got into drugs. The 6th CC was a druggie's paradise; everything from LSD to heroin was available and cheap. I had volunteered to work for the Red Cross, and it turned out that the biggest dealer on the post worked there, too. He was also a science fiction fan and read poetry and played the guitar (and actually had a sitar a la the Beatles' guru), so we hit it off well.
I was still in considerable pain from the wounds, and the army was giving me only a couple of Darvon and a small Demerol to cope with it. I couldn't sleep for the pain, so my friendly pusher suggested opium. It worked beautifully.
I traded beer for it. Every night I'd take the Red Cross guitar down to the Enlisted Men's club and we'd all play and sing and drink beer. You weren't allowed to take beer outside of the club, but it wasn't carefully policed. Over the space of a couple of hours, we'd fill my guitar case up with cans of beer, and when the club closed at ten, I'd hobble out on my crutch with the guitar over my shoulder, and one of the other nocturnal dopers would carry the beer-filled case. Six or eight of us would walk down to a beautiful cove on the South China Sea, a beach that was covered by a Korean machinegun position. They knew who we were and what we were doing, and ignored us in exchange for some dope.
I would smoke a couple of joints of marijuana that had been soaked in tincture of opium. Then I'd sleepwalk back to my ward for about six hours of solid dreamless sleep.
I was certainly dependent on the stuff, but I don't know that I was addicted in a clinical sense. I had to give it up with no warning -- after four months, I was shipped back to my home base, Pleiku, with only an hour to pack -- but didn't suffer any withdrawal symptoms other than sleeplessness.
(The same pusher gave me a heroin cigarette without telling me what it was, and it was a thoroughly unpleasant experience -- tunnel vision, panic attack -- and he had to walk me around for a couple of hours, winding up fully clothed under a cold shower, before I was able to function.)
Sometimes we smoked hash and popped amyl nitrite, but that was about it for me. The idea of hallucinogens didn't appeal at all, and still doesn't -- one can pose about reality being weird enough, and so forth, but in my case I think it boils down to squeamishness. Descriptions of the experience make it sound about as attractive as a root canal.
I did touch the cocaine craze that entertained the country in the seventies and eighties, though I was never enthusiastic enough about the stuff to buy it or have possession of it. By that time I was a kind of a minor celebrity, and there was never any shortage of people who wanted to impress celebrities by pulling out a little vial of white stuff. Usually, we know now, it was pretty weak cocaine, and a good thing it was.
All that stopped in the early eighties, when I accepted the professorship at MIT. I suppose it was partly not wanting to be a bad example in loco parentis. But the possibility of getting busted and winding up on the front page of the Boston Globe loomed larger. Science fiction writers can do any old drug, and who cares? Teachers can't.
I endure a lot of interviews, and they usually wind things up by asking what my ambitions are for the future, as if ambitions for the past could be realized. There's no easy answer that's not flip.
John Brunner was a large literary influence on me, and in later life a cautious friend, and he had a scary thing to say when he was rather younger than I am now: "When I dropped out of school at age seventeen I envisaged a certain range of ambitions: I wanted to make my living as a writer, I wanted to win a Hugo, have a nice home, be happily married, all the usual things. Twenty years went by and I suddenly realized that I had achieved all of the ambitions that I was capable of visualizing when I was seventeen. . . . I'm still casting around for something which will concentrate my faculties. I suspect this happens to many people who reach that age which, in the wild state, would correspond to one becoming a tribal elder."
I'm in a similar position, but unlike John, I don't think I would wear the mantle of tribal elder very well, even if the post was available. Maybe tribal jester would be more comfortable.
I'm an observer rather than a leader, and am content to keep watching, taking life one day at a time, as long as the days are offered. I do plan for the future, in the sense of having several books in various stages of incompletion while I work on the current one. I do want each book to be better than the previous one, to continue growing as an artist, but who would admit to any contrary ambition?
I would like to close a circle by going back to the Iowa Workshop as a teacher. I wouldn't turn down a Pulitzer, or even a Nobel (if only for the opportunity to give a speech about their giving Kissinger the Peace Prize). It would be satisfying to win a Hugo and Nebula in the one category I haven't cracked, novelette, so as to have a complete set. But none of these are things I stay up nights worrying about.
It might be nice to have a best-seller, or a movie that made lots of money, so that our future would be more secure. But I'm a Gibraltar of security compared to most other writers, and have seen how really large amounts of money can take over people's lives. Real life will do.
Right now, real life consists of pedaling bikes 30-50 miles a day, going from Florida to California. As mentioned earlier, I slowed us down with an injury, so we won't make it quite to Texas this year. Go for a couple more weeks and restart next spring.
Real life at home follows a fairly consistent pattern. I get up between three and four in the morning and brew a pot of tea. In the cool months, I make a fire in the fireplace and sit down there to write. When it's warmer, I go out on the back porch. We live on the edge of a few hundred acres of pine forest, and it's pleasant to have the trees and birds and animals out there in the dark while I work.
I do my first drafts in longhand, writing with a fountain pen into blank books. I like the freedom from machinery, and I seem to write more and faster that way than with a computer. It also gives me a definite first draft. Like most people, when I compose on a computer I keep jumping back and forth; by the time I print out a "first" draft, it's actually been worked over a bit.
I do use the computer extensively for making outlines and notes. An experiment I'm trying with The Coming is to outline completely several days' worth of the story, in a running "time-line," which I take out to the porch in the morning. In theory, I don't have to worry about plotting at all while I'm working on the text. (In practice, I wind up fiddling with the time-line on the porch.)
There's no electricity on the porch, so I write between two oil lamps -- making up stories about the distant future, using medieval tools.
After I've finished about 500 words, I quit, and retire to the actual study, which is a book-crammed labyrinth of computer and office equipment. I spend an hour and a half or so online, doing e-mail and Internet business. Gay usually gets up around then. Most of my writing career, in fact, has taken place while she was asleep -- she's an owl and I'm a lark. I go to bed relatively early, about 10:30, and she usually stays up working or reading until midnight or so. I rarely sleep more than five hours, and she likes nine or ten. It may be the only way we've been able to stay married for over thirty years, since otherwise we'd be in each other's way all the time.
She types my first drafts into the computer in the evening, and I usually do my rewriting and outlining in the afternoon.
Gay takes care of most of the business side of the writing, dealing with agents and publicity, travel; maintaining a complex itinerary. We go to Europe a couple of times a year, a luxury we can afford because she sets up speaking dates for me that include transportation for both of us. (All of my "real" books have appeared in several European languages as well as Japanese; at last count the total was fifteen languages. Some are more serious business than others, though; a few years ago the State Department forwarded an award to me for having written the best science fiction novel of the year in Yugoslavia, but it was a pirated edition, for which we never saw a dime.) She also does more of the housework than I do. I do all the cooking, which has been a passion all my adult life.
There are other hobbies that approach passion, assuring that our house never has a shortage of junk. I dabble in painting and music and amateur astronomy. I have four bicycles (one in Cambridge), and use them all for various purposes.
In fact, without planning to, I've set up my life as a kind of perpetual summer vacation. When I was a kid, I couldn't wait for school to be out, so I could tool around on my bike, write my comics and poems, fiddle with paints and music and astronomy. I was extremely fortunate to find that one of my passions could support the rest of them.
The only person ever interviewed twice by the Paris Review series Writers at Work was James Jones. As a relatively young writer, he was asked "Why do you want to write?" His answer was long and rambling and a little pretentious, full of Stendahl and Dostoevski and to booze or not to booze. When they asked him the same question twenty-some years later, he thought and said, "I guess I always wanted to be admired."
There's nothing I can add to that.