I wrote the following piece as part of a birthday roast of my good friend and fellow writer Gregory Frost (author of Tain, Remscela, and The Pure, Cold Light) in May 2001.

 

The Education of Gregory Frost

By John Kessel

 

 
 
 

Some of you are aware that I have known Greg Frost a long time, almost twenty years now--longer, probably, than most if not all of the people at this celebration.  When I first moved to Raleigh, North Carolina from Kansas City, Greg was already living there, working for the university bookstore while he pursued publication as an sf writer.

Since I didn't know anyone in the area, I looked up the names of SFWA members in Raleigh--there were only a couple--and invited them over to my apartment for a party.  That was how I first met Greg.  But the man I met was far from being the sophisticated bon vivant you know now.

What is not generally known is the essential role I played in shaping Greg into the man and the writer he is today.   I don't know why he hasn't told everyone this himself, except perhaps out of embarrassment.  But on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, a milepost of maturity, I figure I can remove the veil from the Greg Frost of so long ago, and incidentally give a demonstration of evolution at work.
 

Photo 1: The Early Frost
 

Here we see Greg as I first met him that day so long ago, mired in the deepest depths of fandom.  This was his typical dress at the time.  Indeed, this was his best party outfit.  Note the Starfleet Admiralís hat.  Note the dazed expression.  The prognathous chin.  Asked to show me his favorite book, he hauled out this crudely printed novel about some alien invaders who ate Cleveland.  I was taken aback.  It was no wonder to me he was having such a hard time getting his writing career off the ground, with such pathetic models.

Well, you can see it was an extreme situation, and I wondered if there was anything I could do.  At first I hesitated:  did I want to be seen in public with this man?  After all, I was a newly hired English professor--were I to be associated with him it might have the direst consequences for my career.

However, I have never failed the call of simple humanity, and I did not then.  Greg and I became friends.  I gained his confidence, which was no easy task, I'll have you know, and involved choking down numerous bottles of Boone's Farm apple wine, watching many hours of Battlestar Galactica.  Ah, those were halcyon days, Greg!

Gently, attempting to elevate his tastes, I suggested some more challenging reading matter.  My effort met with some immediate success, as you will see from photo two.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Photo 2:  Improving
 

Not wanting to press Greg too hard, I thought the best approach would be to start him off on some classic sf, with its manly virtues and cool intellectual appeal.  Wisely, I decided that he was not ready for books with female characters.  He took to Asimov immediately.  Note the improvement in posture and general hygiene.  I convinced him that the hats were cutting off circulation to his brain, and he seemed to buy it.

He did take to carrying this T-square around with him at all times, out of fear that he might suddenly be attacked.  I did not think much of that--it seemed a harmless eccentricity.  How little I knew!  Had I paid better attention and questioned the practice more seriously, we might have avoided the dire consequences reflected in photo three, taken after the setback that almost derailed our entire project.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Photo 3:  Setback
 

You can imagine my alarm and chagrin when Greg showed up at Sue's and my apartment carrying, not the harmless T-square of the hard sci-fi geek, but this sword!  The proximate cause was his exposure to a Robert E. Howard book he had come across in his job at the bookstore.  I cursed myself for an optimistic fool, and redoubled my efforts.

But it was touch and go there for a while.  Nothing I could do would wean him away from tales of mightily thewed warriors rescuing mostly-naked damsels from slavering quasi-Asiatic rapists.  This was Gregís Frazetta phase.  He began wearing fur--a nasty business in North Carolina in August.  His writing, when it did not resort to crude thud and blunder, fell into sesquipedalian bluster.

It was then I hit upon this stratagem:  rather than attempting to pull the barb back out of his flesh, I would push it through to the other side!  I suggested Greg try some Fritz Leiber.   He took to it immediately.  The highly literate Leiber, his stories suffused with a humane irony and tragic heft, gradually redeemed Greg's tastes.   At a crucial moment, I slipped a  modern translation of The Iliad into the mix.  It was not such a far leap from Fafhrd to Achilles.  True, there was a spell there where he shaved his chest, oiled his limbs, and started hanging around with a young boy he called Patroclus.  You may imagine that this did not go over well in the South.

Fortunately, this phase passed, and in the interim, my cause was won. From Homer it was but a short (if grueling) climb to Joyce.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Photo 4:  Success
 

In photo four we see the ultimate outcome of our project. Note the sober expression.  No longer does Greg read for "fun" (whatever that is)!  Instead of a young loser, I now had a friend of literate sensibilities, the urbanity of whose wit and the manner of whose dress rivaled (but did not eclipse) my own.  Not only that, instead of attempting to write for ordinary human beings, I had brought him, like me, to a state where he sought to write only for the sophisticated few who could appreciate the subtle flavors of the most obscurantist fiction.

Today Greg and I, looking back on our progress from the secure (if uncomfortable) vantage point of a half century of wisdom, can laugh as we move from strength to strength, reveling in our unparalleled writing success over the last twenty years.  The fame.  The riches.  The respect of our peers (if there were any).  No, Greg, no--don't bother to thank me.  Just knowing how much you owe me is enough to warm my nights.

One thing, though--if you still have the Starfleet Admiralís hat, can you mail it to me?

Love,
John