My father, John Kessel, was born in Utica, New York, in August 1904. But when he was still a child the family returned to Poland, where they lived on a farm, in a one-room log house with a thatched roof that it shared with another log house occupied by another family. My father and his sister, Caroline, slept on a shelf above the big Dutch oven, on a bed of straw. The house was on a dirt road, which intersected a gravel road at a crossroads. One day a man came running from the crossroads yelling, "The Devil is coming! The Devil is coming!" There was a loud buzzing, as of a swarm of angry bees. My father and the other people ran down to the crossroads, and out of the buzzing and a cloud of dust came an apparition: a man on a motorcycle.
My father died in November of 1993, eighty-nine years old. In a life that spanned most of the twentiethcentury, he had gone from a rural Poland where a piece of modern technology was a supernatural manifestation, to a world where supernatural manifestations—the Psychic Friends Network, angels, you name it—were promoted by the latest in technology. His son became a writer of stories about the marvels of the future and fantasies of alternate reality.
I’m not sure I know what this means.
I wrote about my father’s history in the story “Buffalo.” His father, Joseph Kisiel, lived in a part of Poland that, prior to World War I, was ruled by Austria. He’d left to work on an Italian fishing boat working the waters off Newfoundland. When the boat was full, they sailed to Boston to sell the catch. The crew was allowed ashore without being paid (their pay was withheld to insure that they’d return). But my grandfather jumped ship and got a job working on a farm. Eventually he moved west to Utica, where he met Victoria Zizzio, daughter of a Polish immigrant family, and they got married.
But as I said, when my father was little the family moved back to Poland. Once there, my grandfather was jailed for marrying before serving in the army as the law required. After a term in jail he got out, and they lived on the farm. On the eve of World War I, the story goes, my grandfather bundled up the family and once again headed for the U.S. in order to avoid serving in the military.
I’ve never been able to verify the details of these stories: my grandfather died long before I was born, and each time my father told this history the details seemed to change. Recently, thanks to an online directory of immigrants who came through Ellis Island between the 1880s and 1920s, I was able to verify that the Kisiels arrived from Poland on a ship named the Cedric, from Liverpool, in 1913. Thanks to this I also know something that my father never told me, the name of the town in southeast Poland where motorcycles were the devil: Manasterz. Though Manasterz was listed as part of Austria, the names of my father’s family on the ship’s manifest were all in Polish: his father was Josef, his mother Wiktorya, his older sister Karolina, his younger brother Wladyslaw, and his own name was Johan.
Well, according to more of my father’s unreliable stories, prior to U.S. entry into WWI, agents of the Austrian government were sent to track down runaway citizens like my grandfather, and so Joe Kisiel kept moving. It would more likely have been because he was out of work. From Utica the family went to Syracuse, then to Auburn (where they lived near the state penitentiary). My father told me the story of how one time my grandfather disappeared for a week, then returned in the middle of the night driving a wagon that wasn’t his, packed up the family and moved them to Rochester, ducking the rent as well as any hypothetical agents of the Emperor. By the time the U.S. entered the war, the Kisiels were living in the First Ward of Buffalo, an Irish neighborhood, and Joe Kisiel was working in a foundry, a dollar a day for ten hours work, six days a week.
How we came to be named Kessel is another peculiarity. When my dad was a boy in Rochester, he was sent to a German Catholic school where the nuns Germanized his name, and it has remained that way ever since. When my father’s younger brothers went to school each of them ended up with still different spellings, so that today none of my cousins and I share the same last name.
I have a photo of my father taken in the 1920s. He’s wearing work clothes, repairing the inner tube on a Model T Ford. His hair is mussed, he’s grinning, and he looks like quite a raffish character. He dressed well when he wasn’t working, and had a good sense of humor—a wry, somewhat fatalistic irony that I was surprised to realize, in my twenties, I’d inherited.
My father, about 1927, Buffalo, NY
For a while in the early thirties, during the Great Depression, he made fifteen dollars a month as a farm hand in Michigan. Later he was down to ten dollars a month. He then served a spell in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Virginia, where he injured his back and was hospitalized at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. Eventually he got out, still handicapped, broke. He held a lot of jobs. Another story he told me is of agreeing to drive a friend around to run some errands in Buffalo. He would pull up to the curb and the friend would go into a store while my father waited. People on the sidewalk regarded my father warily. Eventually he figured out that his friend was running a protection racket. He was going into each of the stores and telling the proprietor to fork over or else he would have his thug—my father—work him over.
During World War II my dad was a crane operator in the forty-inch rolling mill of Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna, New York. Later, one summer during my college days, I worked as a laborer in exactly the same mill.
In January of 1945 he and a friend of his walked into a beauty parlor to pick up his friend’s girlfriend. One of the hairdressers there, Angela Giorlandino, was to become my mother.
Mom and Dad, about 1945, Buffalo, NY
I was born in Lafayette General Hospital, on the west side of Buffalo, New York, in 1950. At that time the west side was primarily an Italian neighborhood. My parents lived on Fargo Avenue (a street named after the former mayor of Buffalo who founded the Wells Fargo Company).
John Joseph Vincent Kessel,
about 1951, Buffalo, NY.
He seems pretty cheerful.
I don’t remember anything about Fargo; my first memories of living anywhere are of the house my father built on Bielak Road in the township of Orchard Park. Orchard Park in the early fifties was a village southeast of Buffalo, quite separate from the city proper. The area where my father built our house had been farmland only a short time before. Bielak Road was named after my uncle Nicholas Bielak, who owned the land the road was cut through. “Jan Bielec,” also from Manasterz, who may have been uncle Nick’s father, appears on the same 1913 ship’s manifest that lists my father’s family, and Nick married my father’s sister, Caroline. Ours was one of the first houses on the street. My father also built a house for my uncle Nick, and a store on the corner, and another house a couple of doors down Lake Avenue. Altogether he built five houses within a quarter of a mile of ours. Ours was the third he built. It was his ambition to make his fortune as a contractor. My uncle Nick would front the money and my dad would do the work.
But after a while (to hear my father tell it), he and uncle Nick had a falling out; my father wanted to go faster than my uncle, hire employees and not do so much of the work himself, but my uncle didn’t want to spend the money. Uncle Nick would come by our house on Christmas morning and give each of us kids a starched white envelope from the M&T Bank, containing two brand new one-dollar bills. George Washington looked out through the oval circle in the fold of the bank envelope. I hardly ever saw uncle Nick the rest of the year, even though he ran the store on the corner. He and my aunt Caroline lived in the house attached to the store.
Our house was never really finished. When I was a boy I remember the unpainted living room walls. Later, when the original house was about done, my dad remodeled the bathroom, added a dining room, a second bath, another bedroom, a two-car garage, and an upstairs apartment. In the bathroom he made a new storage cabinet with a wooden door that he painted, but never hung. To this day the door is in the basement of the house waiting for an afternoon’s time or energy that my dad never mustered.
My father was a creative man who never, I think, found the proper outlet for his creativity. He had no education beyond tenth grade. He read a lot, indiscriminately. His vocabulary exceeded his pronunciation, and this led to some mangled English. He had held a lot of jobs, from electrician to carpenter—he was a carpenter most of the time I was growing up—and because of this he could make or fix almost anything. He laid the block for our house, raised the framing, put up and plastered the wallboard, laid the floor tiles, did the wiring, built all the wooden cabinets. He made the coffee table and end tables in the living room. He would work all day at whatever job he held, then come home and work most of the night until he went to bed.
I remember when I was little, maybe three, he would hold me on his lap and teach me how to count. He unfolded his wooden carpenter’s ruler (he called it his “rule”) in front of me and counted the numbers along with me. I remember he would tickle me with his beard stubble, which by the end of the day was quite rough. It felt like sandpaper, and I would giggle and beg him to stop, but I really loved it. He wore green work shirts with flat pencils in the breast flap pocket. His work boots were thick and heavy and smelled pretty ripe when he took them off while he read the Buffalo Evening News in his white work socks.
Mom, Dad, and me, about 1952, I'd guess
It seems to me that the only seasons I remember from back then were summer and winter. Summers were cool and windy, with plenty of rain. Winters were cold and windy, with plenty of snow. I liked playing in the drifts around our house. My friends and I built snow forts and snowmen and dug snow tunnels. We froze our hands pink and faces red. I remember I once fulfilled the moron role in the classic child’s idiot story: I somehow got my tongue stuck on the handle of the back door. We played ice hockey in the backyard of the neighbor’s house. I never learned to ice skate well because my ankles were weak—I’d flop comically—but somehow I still played.
In the summer we explored the woods. The first ten years or so, there were fields and woods around our neighborhood. Later the suburbs and strip malls grew up more thickly and all that went away. It was a working-class neighborhood; all the fathers worked in factories, and the mothers stayed home and raised the kids. There were lots of kids. It seemed like every house on the street had at least two and usually three or four children.
My best friend was Tim Ring, a year younger than I, who lived across the street. Tim’s father was a Buffalo policeman. We looked up to him a great deal—he used to work an extra job to support his family;they were Catholics (as was everybody else, it seemed, including us) and eventually had seven kids—and I remember Mr. Ring putting on his uniform to go to work on the night shift. He’d wear his pistol, a police .38, on his belt. I was in awe of that. One time he let us fire it in the basement of his house, where he set up a firing range. It was so loud my ears rang for ten minutes afterward.
Tim and I and the other neighborhood boys—Scott Hedges, Lenny Kryszak, Bill Ortman, Jim and Bob LaManna, Nick Pukalo—played a lot of baseball in the fields behind our houses, where we mowed a diamond out of the tall grass. We’d play on four- or five-man teams with special rules—only three infielders, right field hits were foul, no walks, etc. I really loved baseball. I was a big fan of the Yankees in the last years of their dynasty under Casey Stengel—Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, Moose Skowron and Elston Howard, Tony Kubek and Bobby Richardson. I vividly remember watching the 1960 World Series against the Pirates on television, climaxed with the Bill Mazerowski home run. I remember how crushed I was, how unfair it seemed—the Yankees had murdered the Pirates in the three games they won, and the Pirates had barely managed to scratch out each of their four victories. It was a significant experience of how inexplicable the world was. It’s ironic to me now, since the person I am today would most likely have been rooting for the Pirates, and I later came to dislike the Yankees of the Steinbrenner era.
Our church was Our Lady of the Sacred Heart on Abbott Road, about a mile or so from our house. The church was small and the parish large, so the masses were always overcrowded every Sunday. The men dressed in brown suits with hats. The women wore print dresses, flowered hats, and coats with fake fur collars. Men stood crowded in the vestibule way in back throughout the whole mass because there were no seats left. When I was a little older I stood back there too. In the early sixties the parish built a big new church right next to the old one. It was tacky modern, but I remember thinking how beautiful it was when I first went in.
The tabernacle and altar in the old church were intricately carved out of wood, full of baroque details and countless spires. This was before Pope John XXIII’s Vatican council, when the masses were still in Latin and the priest turned his back to the congregation. I thought God must live in that little compartment where the priest stored the communion goblet, the wine, and wafers.
The pastor of the church was Father Doyle. He was as Irish as Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way, and I liked him a lot. He loved sports, and would come to our little league games. If he didn’t remember your name, he would call you “old kid, old sock” in an affectionate Irish way that made you feel like you were his favorite kid in the world.
I was very religious, in a superficial way. What I mean by that is, I didn’t really understand religion, or the figure of Jesus, as more than some overwhelming fetish. But I was very serious about observing the letter of the Ten Commandments, memorizing the Baltimore Catechism, being there for the three principal parts of the mass, and minding my behavior. We were supposed to imitate Jesus in word and deed. Of course, imitating Jesus is a losing game, the cost of which in self-esteem I didn’t realize at the time.
Easter was the biggest religious holiday of the year, bigger than Christmas. I remember liking it more than Christmas. Something in the solemnity and ritual of it appealed to me. Also this might have something to do with the fact that there were always family parties every Christmas where the men would get drunk and have arguments, whereas Easter was not a drinking holiday. I hated all the stress of Christmas. Easter didn’t have as much anxiety.
On the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter we would take a basket of food that we were going to eat on Easter Sunday to the church to be blessed. It would contain baked ham, colored eggs, cookies my mother had baked (we would dress the eggs in a shawl of dough and bake them, then frost and sparkle the cookie dress). And neatest of all, my father would carve a sheep out of a pound of butter, with peppercorns for eyes and a little Italian flag in its back on a toothpick.
I took Lent very seriously, giving up ice cream and movies for the season. I missed the movies more than the ice cream. I remember one time I tried to keep three hours of silence on Good Friday, and got furiously angry when my mother asked me something and I inadvertently spoke out. I slammed the door and locked myself in my bedroom.
I spent a lot of time in there, reading, constructing plastic models. Comic books first, then science fiction magazines. Drawing, chemistry set, microscope. My fossil collection, my insects in the cigar box. The complete scientist, age nine; the prototypical science fiction fan.
I attended the West Seneca No. 5 elementary school, which was next door to our church. When I was in third grade the parish finished building a parochial school behind the church and just about everybody in West Seneca No. 5 transferred to the Catholic school, including me. But after a couple of grades I made my parents put me back in the public school. I can’t remember just why, although I do remember getting picked on by a girl crossing guard, who for some reason decided to torment me. But I can’t remember if that was enough to make me want to leave the school.
Whether or not it was, the fact that this girl would bother me so much is an indication of a trait that I had too much of—sensitivity, and a feeling of being aggrieved. I would be easily hurt, react to the situation by running away but never reveal to anyone what I was doing. I’d come up with some other reason for my flight because I was too ashamed of my real one. I’d flee rather than confront an uncomfortable situation. I’d assume malice rather than ask and find out for sure. Inside I’d be resentful and angry, but I’d try not to show it.
This does not sound like an attractive kid to me. I wish he had been a little less sensitive, a little more forthright. It’s a characteristic I still must fight in myself.
In general, I liked school. I liked the teachers and I liked learning things and I learned things fast and was always one of the best students in class. I liked writing on the blackboard when I had the chance, and making displays for the bulletin boards, and drawing and writing and reading. I really liked getting called upon to clap the erasers for the teacher. To do this you took the erasers down the hall to the gym/auditorium. At the side of the stage was a grill over a vacuum with a switch on the wall. You’d flip the switch and air would be sucked through the grille, then you would beat the eraser against the grille and the chalk dust would be sucked into it. I thought this was the neatest device since the jet airplane, and I really liked doing it. The teacher spread the duty around, and two children would be called on to do it together.
I don’t remember being different from the other kids when I was little, or through most of grade school, but by the time I was in junior high school it was all over for me as a normal member of the human race. Part of it was growing so tall and geeky (by eighth grade I was six feet, three inches tall and weighed somewhat less than 130 pounds). Part of it was Catholic repression and guilt. Part of it was being so much smarter than everyone else (I thought, and people said). I think sometimes I scared my parents.
I was tormented by the other boys in seventh grade. They would make fun of my clothes, mock me for my glasses, knock my books out of my hands in the hallways, and push me around in gym class. I did not fight back, which made me even more the target. I was a “brain.” I remember hating those boys with a fury that at times seemed so white hot that if I had had possession of a nuclear device there would be a large crater today in place of West Seneca Junior High.
Girls were a different sort of problem. Puberty hit me like a freight locomotive. I grew like a weed, broke out in pimples, and was both attracted to girls and terrified of them. Part of it was the church, which kept anything having to do with sex a dark mystery at the same time it condemned it out of hand. Part of it was my parents, who were equally uncomfortable with the topic and so never said word one about it. And of course there was the gossip and misinformation and mocking and desire that comprised the fog that clouded sex in junior high. Jokes about “faggots,” (whatever they were, you knew it was the worst thing in the world to be one). Jokes about masturbation, though we all knew we did it. Spontaneous erections on the school bus. Boys teasing the girls who first developed breasts, as if there were something shameful about it. I didn’t even understand that those guys doing the teasing were attracted to those girls. In boys’ swimming class at our school, for some perverse reason, we were not to use bathing suits, but were to swim nude. We called the swimming pool the “nudatorium.” I can’t imagine a more traumatic experience for a self-conscious twelve-year-old Catholic boy. As I wrote in the introduction to my first story collection, Meeting in Infinity, if you had been able to read my mind at the age of twelve, you would have heard me screaming, “Get me out of here!” I realize now that most of my classmates must have felt some of the same misery I felt—or equivalent miseries—but at the time I thought myself the unhappiest person on the planet.
The solution was to spend as little time as possible on the planet. I did my best.
I don’t remember when I first discovered science fiction and fantasy. It seems to me I loved it from the time I could read. Before sf there were comic books and fairy tales and Dr. Seuss. All things fantastic appealed to me.
But in junior high it was science fiction that saved me. First library books: Andre Norton, the Winston SF series, the Gnome Press, Lester Del Rey, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke. The massive story anthologies of golden age sf—Adventures in Time and Space, the Groff Conklin anthologies, the Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction. Then a dalliance with the Tom Swift, Jr., series. And then the paperbacks. And the magazines, to which I began subscribing in 1963 (Analog, F&SF, Galaxy). The Science Fiction Book Club. I used to line the covers of the books up on my bed to make a mosaic of escape. Spaceships, other planets, Chesley Bonestell starscapes, aliens, time machines, dinosaurs, future cities, laboratories, and big-breasted women in silver space suits.
One of my fondest memories is of Saturday afternoons spent at the Abbott Theater in South Buffalo. This was some distance from our house, but my father would drive me and my sister, Jackie, there and drop us off. The theater showed double features, mostly low-budget and second-run movies. With cartoons and previews it added up to a full afternoon. It cost something like sixty-five or seventy-five cents. The place was full of rowdy kids ranging in age from just past toddlers to early teens, kids in the balcony skimming flattened popcorn boxes off into the beam of the projector like Frisbees, kids blowing through empty Good-n-Plenty boxes like noisemakers (later they redesigned the boxes so this couldn’t be done any more).
Most of the movies were pretty bad, but that didn’t matter. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Mysterious Island, Master of the World, and The Time Machine had some pretensions to quality, but then there were the real B-movies—Twelve to the Moon, X—The Man With X-Ray Eyes, First Spaceship on Venus, Cat Women of the Moon. Vincent Price and Hammer horror movies. These movies were much more stupid than the books and stories I read, but I still loved them. The special effects were so cheesy. The budgets so low, the acting so bad. I remember thinking that if only Hollywood would spend the money that they spent on Ben Hur on an sf movie they could finally make something good. But sf was second-class, so they never would. Today, I see how naive I was, when hundreds of millions are spent on films, with impeccable special effects, and the same mindless scripts I was watching in 1960.
One September Sunday in 1963 I walked down the block from grandfather Giorlandino’s house on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo to Cosentino’s delicatessen. On the magazine rack there I found my first sf magazine, the October 1963 Fantasy and Science Fiction. I have it in front of me now. After that I bought a new magazine every time we visited my grandfather—Galaxy, If, Amazing, F&SF, Analog.
I started writing stories in grade school, collecting them in a magazine I illustrated myself. In seventh grade my parents gave me a Sears portable typewriter, and I taught myself to type. I sent my first short story (a “feghoot” in the terms of sf fans) to F&SF in 1964. I was excited just to get a rejection slip.
I realize I haven’t said anything much about my mother or the Italian side of my family. Because of her cosmetology training, my mother was considered quite stylish by her friends, up on all the latest beauty tips. When she was young she was quite slender and had a good figure. But she never married, not until she was thirty years old. This was quite unusual, and she was close to being an old maid in the Italian culture. The fact that she married a Pole was likewise unusual. I don’t know what was behind this. My mother says she was worried about her mother, who was not well, and that this may have kept her off the marriage market. Three days before her wedding to my father, her mother died. This threw quite a damper on things, but the priest said the banns had been published, and they should not postpone the wedding.
After my mother got married she quit her beauty shop and became a housewife.
My mother was born Angela Giorlandino, in Campobello, Sicily, on January 4, 1914. Her father, Vincent Giorlandino, was a mason. She was the second child named Angela in the family; the first, her mother’s firstborn, died at the age of two, when my mother’s older sister, Esther, was an infant. Esther later died in the influenza epidemic of 1918-19, and so my mother ended up an only child. I have a photograph, taken in Sicily, of my mother, her sister, Esther, and my grandmother, whose name was Amelia. My mother is standing on a chair, posed in front of a backdrop in some photographer’s studio. She must be about two years old.
My mom (on chair) with her mother and
her sister Esther, Sicily, about 1916
My mother tells a story that must date from about that time. She and Esther were walking along the road past a grove of olive trees. “I want an olive,” my mother said. Esther said, “You can’t, if the lady catches you she’ll hurt you.” My mother cried, so Esther said, “Go ahead.” My mother climbed up one of the trees to take an olive and eat it. While she was up there the woman who owned the trees ran out and caught her. She pulled my mother down, took a hooked knife out of her dress and used it to prick my mom’s finger. “The next time you steal my olives I’ll cut your finger off!” the woman said.
My grandfather Vincent came to the U.S. in 1913 (arriving at Ellis Island, coincidentally, about two months after my father’s family), intending to send for my grandmother, who was pregnant with my mother, when he got a job and a place to live. Instead the war intervened and they were unable to come until after it was over.
Anyway, they made it over in 1920. My grandfather had established himself as a mason in Buffalo and became quite prosperous in the 1920s. He constructed many of the stone cellars in Kenmore, New York. The family owned two houses, one of which they rented out. But he lost his business after the stock market crashed. During the Great Depression he took a job as a bricklayer for General Electric for thirteen hours a week, which he was lucky to get.
My mother, as an only surviving child, was kept close to home. When she was still a child her eyesight was damaged by a household accident: she never finished grade school, and never learned to drive. Her mother, having already lost two daughters, hovered over her, and she came to expect a lot of attention.
My mom, with her father Vincent Giorlandino
and her mother Amelia Lucotti Giorlandino,
about 1926, Buffalo, NY
Like many old-school Italian women, my mother has lived through her children. Her relationship to my father went sour — I expect he never gave her the attention she wanted after the first years of the marriage—and she focused on us kids instead. Her first child, a girl, Amelia, died in infancy. Then my mother suffered two miscarriages before I was born, when she was thirty-six. My sister, Jackie, was born in March 1954, and my brother, Jim, the day after Christmas 1957. As the oldest child, I got the most attention, both for good and ill. I developed some of the same sensitivity my mother had. I also was called on to supply affection that my mother didn’t get from my dad. I was a very obedient boy, and did all I could to please her.
My sister suffered under a different regime; although she was very bright she was not as good a student as I and was constantly compared to me. , She was also a very cute girl and got so much praise for that that she became pretty headstrong. It was a very sexist culture we grew up in. A bad deal for all concerned.
Me and Jackie, about 1956, Buffalo, NY
That ethnic world I grew up in, that Polish-Italian-Catholic world, is gone. Part of it is my own fault. When I was a boy, the last thing I wanted was to be Polish or Italian. I grew up familiar with every kind of ethnic joke. I think one reason I’ve always been sympathetic to the underdog, and troubled by racial or sexual prejudice, is the experience of growing up in the ethnic melting pot, where everyone was Irish, or Italian, or German, or Polish, or Croatian, or Czech, or Ukranian, as well as American. We wanted to be American, completely. My mother once bought an Italian language course on a set of long-playing records and encouraged me to learn. I refused, even though the family would talk Italian at my grandfather’s house on Sundays. So I never learned any Polish or Italian to speak of.
I feel the loss of this heritage now more than I ever could have imagined then. The only film I’ve ever seen that captured any of this is Barry Levinson’s movie Avalon: the way that the desire to assimilate led the extended family gradually to disintegrate. I was the one who ran the farthest. Though I always keep in touch with my brother and sister, and frequently visit, I have not lived in Buffalo since the summer of 1973. The older generation is all gone, and I see my cousins so seldom that I hardly know what they all are doing.
High school was marginally less terrible than junior high. I got tracked into an “advanced class” and developed some friends —Jim Germain, Larry Eitel—who did not scorn science fiction. I did great in my classes, and loved learning things, but had no social life whatsoever. I was afraid of girls. In order to try to fit in better, I went out for sports, and made the volleyball, basketball, and track teams, though I was not much of an athlete. I graduated second in my class at West Seneca High—a couple of hundredths of a percentage point behind Larry, a couple of hundredths ahead of Jim—took the New York State Regents qualifying exam and, out of more than ten thousand students, scored the second highest result in the state. The West Seneca administration was a little stunned, as was I. I had my picture in the paper. Everyone, including me, thought I had a brilliant career ahead as a scientist.
In 1968 I enrolled at the University of Rochester, majoring in astrophysics.
In college I managed to bring myself to do some of the things that other teenagers had been doing since junior high. In the late sixties, the breakdown of the formal dating culture was a great boon to oddballs like me. I could grow my hair long, wear bell bottoms and smoke dope, and discover that my odd sense of humor might actually entertain some people. Lots of other twenty-year-olds were finding out how odd they were.
John as longhair, 1972
And I found myself becoming political. I am basically a moralist, and an idealist. My family were diehard Roosevelt Democrats. Although I grew up in the 1950s, in fact the Great Depression and the Roosevelt administration were daily presences in our household. Although he sometimes bitched about corrupt union officials and ignorant apprentices, my father was a proud member of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, AFL-CIO. For me, a union was not some obstacle to progress and economic freedom, but a fundamental expression of the solidarity of working men and a guardian of their rights against an industrial system that had, previous to their long struggle to organize, unmercifully exploited people like my parents and relatives and everyone around me. I believe in the United States, but where I grew up there was no contradiction between that, and unions, and social welfare.
I believed, and believe, in the government’s role in public welfare. I got a good education because the U.S. and the State of New York spent money on public education. Maybe they did it in order to compete with the Soviets—that seemed to be the motivation for most everything that happened nationally through my childhood—but it nonetheless gave me the opportunity my parents did not have. I read books from the public library. I attended a private university, one of the most exclusive ones in the state, in part because of my State Regents scholarship. My family survived more than one layoff because of unemployment insurance. I saw, first hand, that people who worked very hard could end up unemployed, or on welfare, through no fault of their own. It’s a lesson I will never forget, and it makes me see red when I hear people who have been privileged their entire lives talk about women, or African Americans, or immigrants, or working-class people as if they were morally deficient and genetically inferior.
It took me some time to come around to realize that the U.S. government was lying to the public about Vietnam, and that the war was wrong. I grew up believing in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the honor of the president and the Congress, and idealistic about U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. betrayal of those very ideals turned me around. Combine this with the moral idealism that lingered from my Catholic upbringing—where would Jesus have stood on civil rights, and the Vietnam war?—and my move to the left in college came naturally.
While an undergraduate I discovered organized science fiction fandom. My friend Steve Carper and I attended the World SF Convention in St. Louis in 1969. We started an sf club and a fanzine, URanian.
I had always liked my English classes in high school and had been writing fiction since I was a boy (my goal was to be a scientist who wrote sf in his spare time—Isaac Asimov was my hero). But literature was a hobby, not a career. In my college English classes I read things I had not before, and discovered I liked them. Why couldn’t I like Alfred Bester and Joseph Conrad at the same time? I had always had some of the attitude of the classic sf fan—“those mainstreamers don’t like sf, so I won’t like ‘literature.’ Then I read Moby Dick. First I hated it, then I was fascinated by it, and finally I loved it. In graduate school I took a seminar from Professor Elizabeth Schultz at the University of Kansas on Melville and Hawthorne. I can’t tell you how significant that was to me. Beth Schultz was a brilliant teacher, with passion for the work and an ability to convey it. I never worked harder in a grad class, or learned more. I was hooked on Melville, and on literature.
There’s something about Melville that attracts me, yet I can’t articulate it that clearly. Certainly he can be a beautiful prose stylist, but in other places—stories like The Confidence Man, for instance—the prose is so tortured that reading him is like drilling through rock. It’s something about his matter: Melville wrestles with the world. Hawthorne wrote of Melville in his notebook , “He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential.” Melville seeks deeply to understand the meaning of things. He cares about right and wrong. He observes the natural world closely, but he always moves past the surface to what things might mean. He is able to put aside his own cultural circumstances more than most writers. For instance, he is able to see the way racial attitudes are constructed by society in a way that few if any white men of his time—or ours-can.
I can’t claim Melville’s honesty or courage, let alone his artistic ability, but I do think I share some of this quality of projecting myself into other perspectives. I can see how any number of viewpoints that I think are absurd may be credible to some people. Sometimes this gets me into hot water with my wife Sue. She’ll tell me about some conflict, looking for sympathy, and I’ll respond by wondering about the other person’s point of view. I do not agree with political conservatives, but I can understand exactly why they believe what they believe, and even see that, from their point of view, what they believe is the only reasonable conclusion to draw from observable facts. I can understand how they would see me as irresponsible or weak minded or wicked or just plain wrong.
With such a state of mind, how can I know what I know? This is Melville’s question of course—we can’t. This can make me wishy-washy, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have my own bedrock convictions. Certain things are brought home to me forcefully as true (if not exclusively true), and this is fundamentally a matter of instinct. Yet instinct (whatever that is) is a shaky foundation on which to erect a system of belief. I don’t know, in the end, what else anyone relies on. My only saving grace is my uncertainty. People who are unsure of the rightness of their positions seldom mount pogroms.
But back to my undergrad days. About the middle of my junior year I discovered that my grades in lit classes, which I was taking for fun, were a full point higher than my grades in math and science. I still would have loved to be an astronomer, but I could see that I wasn’t as brilliant as many of the other physics majors at Rochester, and became convinced that I wouldn’t do any great work there. And at the same time, I got more and more serious about writing. So I double majored in physics and English (the only person to do this in the class of 1972). When I got out, I had no job prospects and decided to try grad school. My plan was to get a master’s degree in English and become a junior college teacher.
One of the main reasons I chose the University of Kansas was the fact that a genuine science fiction writer, James Gunn, was on the English faculty there. I enrolled in his class on Science Fiction and the Popular Media, and eventually became his graduate assistant for three years. At Kansas I discovered I could write an M.A. thesis in fiction writing instead of criticism, and since I was already writing fiction I leapt at the opportunity. As Gunn’s assistant, I was responsible for ushering around many of the visiting writers he brought to campus. I’m pretty sure none of them remembered me, but during my career at Kansas I met Harlan Ellison, John Brunner, Brian Aldiss, Ben and Barbara Bova, Theodore Sturgeon, Frederik Pohl, Samuel Delany and several others.
At the University of Kansas,
Lawrence, KS, 1973
Jim Gunn and I had some big disagreements about sf and writing. We still don’t agree about “The Cold Equations,” which he calls the touchstone story for science fiction, and in which I see meretricious social Darwinism and moral evasion. But I learned a lot from him. He’s a craftsman, an advocate of rewriting and of careful planning. I like to think of myself as the same, and I owe a lot of that to him.
Among the other students at KU was a young woman who was taking Gunn’s undergrad writing class while I was his assistant: Pat Cadigan. And shortly after I passed though the system, Bradley Denton also got a degree at KU. I have to say I’m pretty proud of this Kansas connection, and the strong writers who have come out of it.
While at Kansas I met Penelope Crews, a student in special education. We dated, got married in August of 1975. After graduation Penny became a teacher of multiply severely handicapped children at the Joan Davis School in Kansas City, and we moved from Lawrence to Kansas City. I commuted to Lawrence where I continued to teach English and take classes toward my doctorate in literature.
My desire to write and publish sf was a strong as ever, and throughout the 1970s I continued to write stories and send them off to sf magazines and anthologies. I had several close misses, but no success. Damon Knight, editing Orbit, began to send me notes instead of rejection slips. On one memorable occasion, in response to a long story I wrote in the summer of 1975, he sent me a two page single-spaced letter telling me in no uncertain terms what was good and bad about my story. I was tremendously heartened, but I never could make that rewrite come out right, and I never sent it back to him.
Eventually, in 1976, I sold a story, then entitled “The True Creator Strives for Verisimilitude” (I was in my Harlan-Ellison-title phase then) to an original anthology edited by Scott Edelstein titled Black Holes. Unfortunately, the title of the anthology proved to be prophetic, and the story never came out, though eventually Scott paid me in full ($160) for the story.
This story actually has an interesting history. I wrote the first version in a white heat over Christmas vacation, December 1972, after my first semester of graduate school. I had just driven eleven hundred miles in twenty-two hours from Lawrence to Buffalo. The story was about a psychotic stranger driving along the same highway—Interstate 70—committing random acts of violence along the way. It was rejected seven times before Edelstein accepted it. After Black Holes folded, I rewrote it and sent it out again, finally placing it at Pat Cadigan’s magazine Shayol in 1978. But Shayol never put out another issue, and Pat sent the story back to me in December 1979.
I rewrote it again, changing the title, and sent it on the rounds again. It was rejected another fourteen times before a new magazine named Imago accepted it in September 1983. But Imago folded in 1984 without ever publishing an issue. By this time I had dubbed this story my “magazine killer.” In the mid-eighties, after the cyberpunk debate had heated up, I rewrote it again, and sold it to Gardner Dozois at Asimov’s Science Fiction as “The Pure Product.” By this time the story had changed a great deal from its earliest version, but it still had the same plot. I warned Gardner of the risk he was taking by accepting it (he was new to the editorship of Asimov’s), but the story came out in March 1986, to very favorable notice. Many said it marked a new turn in my career, which I considered ironic for a story I’d first written fourteen years before. It eventually ended up in Modern Classics of Science Fiction, and is the title story of my 1997 collection from Tor.
In some ways the story was different from anything else I had written at that time, which was perhaps why I stuck with it for all those years when I had abandoned all the other fiction I was writing back in the early seventies as beyond hope. The story always had a strong narrative drive, and a kind of rage driving it, and a black wit. It touched something in my id. In a way it was a foretaste of my novel Good News from Outer Space. It opened up a new voice for me. The narrator, Gerald, was the first of a line of amoral male characters who have returned at various times to my fiction, the ancestor of Richard Shrike in Good News and of Detlev Gruber in my time travel stories.
The experience taught me to trust my instincts, to dig deep, and not be afraid of material over which you don’t quite have control. To keep rewriting when you feel there is something there in the story, however unrealized, that is worth pursuing. “The Pure Product,” along with “Another Orphan” and “Not Responsible! Park and Lock It!” told me that I would be most successful when I was closest to my heart, regardless of the expectations of the marketplace.
But back in the mid-seventies I was pretty discouraged. I had two other stories accepted at marginal markets, which never published the stories. By 1977 I was down on my writing. That summer, I made a deal with myself and with Penny: I would take a year off from graduate school and write full time. If at the end of that year I hadn’t gotten anywhere, I would put the writing aside and try something else—either finish the graduate degree or, most likely, get a paying job in the so-called Real World. I started in August 1977 with great energy, and wrote three stories in three months. I sent them off. Nothing happened. I got discouraged, and stopped writing. Through Christmas and the New Year, I was doing nothing while Penny worked away at teaching, supporting us both, and I got to feeling pretty worthless.
Then in January 1978 Ed Ferman at F&SF bought my first story, “Just Like a Cretin Dog.” But somehow I had run out of gas, and after finishing one more story in February, I took a job in a B. Dalton’s bookstore. Soon after that three more of my stories were accepted by Charles Ryan at Galileo, which published them before the F&SF sale came out. Eventually just about everything I wrote during the mid-seventies was sold and published. Ed Ferman bought nine of my early stories, at a time when nobody else was interested in my fiction, and if he had not bought them they would have ended up in my file drawer. I will never forget that. Not only was F&SF the first sf magazine I ever read or subscribed to, but after the demise of Galileo in 1980, F&SF was my whole early career.
By 1979, though I may have begun to sell some stories, the rest of my life was in disarray. Penny and I had separated, and would be divorced in March of 1980. I had finished my course work for the doctorate, but had no project in mind for a dissertation. Since March of 1979 I had been working as a copy editor at an economic wire service, Commodity News Services, in Leawood, Kansas. The same month that I moved into a tiny studio apartment in Kansas City, I won a ten thousand dollar NEA grant for creative writing. I expected this would allow me to quit my job in order to write, but under the separation agreement Penny and I agreed to I was obliged to help support her until she completed her master’s degree in deaf education—this was only fair, since she had supported me while I was pursuing my doctorate. So I couldn’t afford to quit.
All of 1980 was a series of radical highs and lows like this. My apartment was not air conditioned, and the summer of 1980 turned into the hottest on record. That same summer the Kansas City Royals, a team I had come to follow obsessively, won 101 games and ended up in the World Series. They lost. Five of my previously sold stories appeared in 1980, and I began to feel like I might have a career—except I hadn’t sold a story in a couple of years, and no one paid any attention to the ones that were published. Nor, as far as I could tell, realistically, should anyone. The woman I was in love with refused to see me. I started dating again. I was alone for the first time in my life. Working at a real salaried job. Twenty-nine years old.
Something was at work in my life; in a way 1980 was the beginning of who I am now. When I moved into that apartment in December 1979, it was completely empty except for four books I found in the closet. One of the four was a copy of the Richard Wilhelm translation of the I Ching, yellow binding, in mint condition, the same edition used by Philip K. Dick to write The Man in the High Castle. I took that as an omen, and still have that copy of the book on my desk today.
The wire service kept me busy during the days, but I had gotten permission to write fiction for my dissertation, and was trying to put together a collection of my short stories to complete my degree, working with Professor Stephen Goldman at Kansas, with a committee of James Gunn, Elizabeth Schultz, and James Carothers. I decided to write a big new story to finish it. That was “Another Orphan,” an idea I’d had a year before about a man who finds himself, at the beginning of the story, marooned in Melville’s Moby Dick. He read the book as an undergraduate and realizes that in the end everyone but Ishmael dies. How will he escape?
I started “Another Orphan” in that unmoored December of 1979, and worked on it, off and on, throughout 1980, finishing the first draft on the 12th of December 1980. It wasn’t really a genre story. It had been a big year, the most disorienting, and, looking back on it, important of my life. When I finished the rewrite, and my dissertation, in March 1981, I had this novella that I was pretty sure I was going to have a hard time selling. I sent it to an old friend, an astute sf reader and writer. He told me that if I had not been a personal friend he would not have read past the second page. Instead of being crushed, I only got mad. If this story didn’t make it, then too bad. It was what I had to write, and I knew what I had put into it, and if no one else found that worthwhile, then I’d live with it. But I wasn’t going to abandon it without a fight. The Berkley Showcase, which had published one of my earlier stories, sent it back unread. Marta Randall at New Dimensions didn’t want it either. I finally sent it to Ed Ferman with a letter asking him to give it special consideration since, although it wasn’t the usual fare, I really had devoted a lot of time to it and if he didn’t take it I didn’t know what to do with it. He accepted it in October of 1981 and it appeared in the September 1982 issue. By next spring it had made the Nebula ballot—but more about that later.
One other significant thing that happened in 1980 occurred at the World SF Convention in Boston. I was there by myself, wandering around pretty aimlessly, when I got onto a crowded elevator. A young man got on wearing the name badge “James Patrick Kelly.” I had recently read a story in Terry Carr’s Best Science Fiction of The Year #8 called "Death Therapy." It had knocked me out. Who the hell was James Patrick Kelly? Carr had said this was his first published story.
“Are you the person who wrote ‘Death Therapy’?” I asked.
The guy seemed somewhat surprised. “Yes.”
I had to get off the elevator. “Meet me in the SFWA suite in an hour,” I said.
An hour later he showed up, and we struck up a conversation. It was like I had met my lost brother.
A year after the convention we hadn’t had any contact, and I was getting ready to make my plans to go to the worldcon in Denver. I had the idea of calling Kelly to see if he might be going. I looked up his number and called long distance to New Hampshire, but there was no answer. Hanging up the phone, I went downstairs to check my mail, and there in the mailbox was a postcard from Kelly; first line: “You’ve been a lot on my mind recently.” Kismet.
Kessel & Kelly, Central Park, 1984
Since then we’ve become the best of friends, though we’ve never lived within seven hundred miles of each other. I can’t tell you how much his friendship has meant to me over the years, the advice, the shared joys and sorrows, the vacations spent together, watching our kids grow. First my bachelorhood, then his. The trips to Europe, England. Our spouses. The stories, the workshops as participants, teachers. A collaborative novel, and stories. He’s always there when I need him, there have been times when I’ve needed him a lot; I hope he can say the same of me.
Being an aspiring science fiction writer with a very short list of published stories was an odd feeling. On the one hand, I had achieved what I had always sought—to publish sf and get paid for it. On the other, nothing changed. I still had to find work, I still had to deal with my life, I still was the same person I was the day before that first issue of Galileo came out. Of course this is a simple truth, but it’s one that did not really occur to me until after the fact. I suspect a lot of aspiring writers think that if they should get published their world will be transformed. In some sense this is true, but the sense in which it is true is a subtle one. The changes are more internal, and they are not instant.
In the beginning of Woody Allen’s movie Stardust Memories he has a dream. He’s on a train sitting in a station, in a car full of odd looking, ill-dressed and awkward people. He looks out of the car window, and in the next train over is a car full of beautiful women and handsome men, laughing and drinking champagne . Before Woody can get up and try to move to that other train, the train he is on starts up and he is off on a trip with a trainful of losers.
I was convinced that I was on that losers train, and I desperately wanted to be on the other one. I imagined that it existed somewhere, and took people to some better place than wherever it was I was going (“Get me out of here!” my inner twelve-year-old was screaming). I just did not know how to get a ticket. I imagined that publishing sf might be that ticket. But in fact, I got published, and I was still on the same train as always.
Maybe there was no other train. Maybe both trains were in my head. Maybe, as in Woody Allen’s dream, both trains end up in the same place.
I’ve seen now, as a teacher of aspiring writers, the look in their eyes that tells me that lots of my students are looking for that utopian happy train. They think that I am on it. And I am, as much as anyone is. But in the end there is no train, there is only yourself.
Back to 1980: by that time I had some small sense of a career as an sf writer: I had published three stories in Galileo, three in F&SF, and a couple in anthologies. Most of these stories were written between 1975 and the spring of 1979. I was thirty years old, recently divorced, close to finishing my Ph.D. in English, working for the wire service in Kansas City, and somewhat at sea as to what the future would hold. I did not think it was likely I would pursue an academic career: for one thing, my dissertation was a collection of sf stories, not a critical work in American literature, and I figured that would not earn me a teaching position in any reputable university, certainly not a tenure-track job. I was making what seemed to me at the time good money as an editor, and perhaps that could be a paying career, but I was not dedicated to journalism. I figured I wanted to write more fiction, but after finishing “Another Orphan” I fell into a slump and did not finish—hardly even started—another story for two years.
But in the fall of 1981 I applied for a position in American lit and creative writing at North Carolina State University, was lucky enough to get an interview at MLA in December, visited the campus in January, and to my amazement was hired to begin in August 1982. I packed up and drove the thousand miles to Raleigh, knowing nobody there and starting what seemed to be a completely new life. The change broke loose my writing, and between May 1982 and May 1984 I finished nine new stories, the manuscript of my collaborative “fix-up” novel with Jim Kelly, Freedom Beach, and the first ten thousand words of my second novel, Good News from Outer Space. Plus two academic essays, along with teaching three classes per semester and settling into my life as an academic. By the standards of the science fiction genre this is not exceptional productivity, but for me it was: I have never written so much, so consistently, in such a short period before or since.
“Another Orphan” appeared in the September 1982 F&SF, on the stands the month I arrived for my new job at NCSU. To my great pleasure, as I mentioned earlier, it made the final ballot for the Nebula Award in the spring of 1983, my first-ever nomination. The banquet was to be in New York City in April, and I made a deal to meet Jim Kelly and stay with him at his parents’ house in New Canaan, Connecticut. Connie Willis was also nominated, in two categories, and she also came to stay at Jim’s house.
I was a complete unknown to the sf world at that point, and the night of the awards I had not been invited to sit any of the editors’ tables. Connie was at the Isaac Asimov’s table, but Jim and I sat off in a corner; at that table were Lois Metzger and her then boyfriend, Tony Hiss, who was an editor at the New Yorker. I had never met either of them, but I was very familiar with and sympathetic to the case of Alger Hiss, Tony’s father. We hit it off very well, and Tony bought a bottle of wine for the table.
The first award, for short story, went to Connie’s “A Letter From the Clearys,” a story that she had critiqued at Ed Bryant’s writers’ workshop. The novelette award, to everyone’s surprise, went to Connie’s “Fire Watch.” She was at that point undoubtedly the most obscure writer ever to win two Nebulas in the same year.
The novella was next. I was very nervous, but certainly not expecting to win, so when Michael Bishop announced that “Another Orphan” had taken the Nebula for best novella of 1982, I was completely nonplussed. I went up to the podium, mumbled a few words of thanks, and stumbled back to the table, completely unaware that Michael had by accident given me the trophy for the novel winner, which had yet to be announced. The people at my table pointed this out to me—the winner was Michael’s own No Enemy But Time—and when the title was announced I had to go back up to exchange trophies with Mike.
That night Jim, Connie, and I took the train back to Connecticut. We sat in the kitchen of the Kellys’ dark, silent house, stood the three Nebulas up on the kitchen counter, and had a drink. In the morning Jim’s mother was pleased that we had come back with the awards, but seemed to care more about what we wanted for breakfast. (“I knew you would win. Would you like bacon with your eggs?”) I think she imagined that if they were so easy to come by they must be relatively commonplace items.
Jim and John, the Hague, Holland, 1989
I met Sue Hall in November of 1982, soon after I moved to Raleigh, when I wrote an article for a local magazine The Spectator and she was assigned to illustrate it. She had recently been divorced from her first husband, and both of us were pretty cautious. We did not start dating until spring 1983. In December 1983 we began living together; we bought a house in 1985, and got married in 1986. Our daughter, Emma, was born in March 1994.
John and Sue, 1985, Raleigh, NC
In 1981 Ed Bryant invited me to his Milford Writers’ Workshop. The weeklong workshop took place at Colorado Mountain College, outside of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Attending were Ed, George R. R. Martin, Connie Willis, Cynthia Felice, Steve Resnick Tem, Gerry Earl Brown, Karl Hansen, Nicholas Yermakov, Peter Alterman, and me. And a new writer who Ed had just discovered at a teaching workshop that took place the week before the Milford, who had as yet published no fiction, but whose work impressed Ed and Harlan Ellison, who were the workshop teachers: Dan Simmons. At this time, the only writers of this group who had any reputation to speak of were Bryant, who had recently won his second Nebula Award, and Martin, also a Nebula Award winner who had won two Hugo Awards at the Boston Worldcon the previous year.
The workshop was a significant experience for me. I became friends with Connie and Cynthia and Dan, and for the first time felt like a member of the writing community. The next year I attended Milford again, but then Ed quit running them for a few years, and I moved to North Carolina. In 1984, Mark Van Name and I, at the suggestion of Greg Frost, threw a five-day workshop over the Christmas vacation, in Mark’s big new house in Raleigh. We called it Sycamore Hill, and modeled it on the Milford workshops as I had seen them under Bryant. It was pretty much a local affair, and as it happened none of the female writers we invited were able to attend, so the list was me, Mark, Allen Wold, Orson Scott Card, Gregg Keizer from North Carolina, Greg Frost (who had lived in Raleigh but moved to Philadelphia), Greg’s roommate Timothy Sullivan, and my out-of-state friends Scott Russell Sanders, Steve Carper, and James Patrick Kelly. Among the stories that we critiqued over those five days were Sanders’ haunting “Ascension,” Kelly’s “Rat” and “Solstice,” Card’s “Salvage” and “The Fringe,” and the first three chapters of my novel Good News from Outer Space. Mark and I were quite happy with the way it worked out, and the next year expanded the workshop to a full week, and moved to a house we rented on the campus of the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh. That year, in addition to Wold, Card, Kelly, and Keizer from the first SycHill, we had Bruce Sterling, Connie Willis, Rebecca Ore, Karen Fowler, Shariann Lewitt, Susan Palwick, and Jack Massa.
Sycamore Hill Writer’s Conference, 1990, Raleigh, NC
There were some real personality clashes and differences of opinion at the second SycHill—in some ways it was the most difficult for us to manage of any of them—but the thing had also really taken off. Mark and I, with the eventual addition of Richard Butner, ran Sycamore Hill through the mid-1990s, and after a hiatus Richard and I, with the help of Greg Frost, ran several Sycamore Hills at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, and most recently at the Wildacres Retreat in the North Carolina mountains. The anthology Intersections came out of the 1995 SycHill., These workshops have been a formative influence on my career, and I’m very proud of the writing they’ve goaded people into doing that they might not have done otherwise. I never intended Sycamore Hill to have a “program”, but for better or worse SycHill did become a force for promoting literarily ambitious sf and fantasy writing among my generation of writers.
In the mid-eighties, just after I’d won the Nebula, the cyberpunk controversy started heating up in science fiction, sparked by a vehicle of agitprop called Cheap Truth, edited by the pseudonymous Vincent Omniaveritas. I was committed to writing what you might call literary science fiction, but was completely blindsided by some of the criticisms Cheap Truth leveled. Not only did it attack the least-common-denominator tripe that filled the paperback racks, it seemed to spend as much if not more time attacking the more ambitious and literary of my generation of sf writers—people like Kim Stanley Robinson and Connie Willis—while at the same time praising writers like William Gibson, who to my eyes was not any less literary in his aspirations than the writers CT criticized. I had read a number of early stories by Lewis Shiner in 1979 and 1980 that I really liked, and we had exchanged a few letters in which it seemed we had no disagreements about science fiction and what it was about; I did not know that he now considered himself a cyberpunk, and was quite surprised when, as “Sue Denim” he turned out to dislike writers that I admired. (Lew and I are still friends, and after his move to North Carolina in 1996 we met regularly with some others to workshop our writing—still do).
I heard that Omniaveritas was a pseudonym for Bruce Sterling, so I wrote Bruce a letter asking him, essentially, what was up? Sterling wrote back immediately, and a long-range debate/discussion ensued. After a hiatus, I was re-starting Good News from Outer Space, and Bruce was beginning Islands in the Net, and we were both in a state of re-evaluation of what we wanted to do. As Bruce said in one of his early letters, “I’m particularly malleable and suggestible at the moment and hope to derive real benefit from what promises to become a very interesting debate. (Maybe ‘debate’ is too strong a word from two people in our pitiable states of confusion. A ‘joint exploration,’ then.)”
It was all of that. I know it had an effect on Good News and my career since, and I think it had some effect on Bruce. For a while there from 1985 to 1990, we exchanged five-page single spaced letters monthly (this was in the days before email), arguing literary theory and science fiction. At the same time I corresponded with Kim Stanley Robinson, who was in Switzerland for two years. I came to understand and even agree with some of Sterling’s critiques of current sf, and more importantly, understand what he aspired to do, which was something definitely different from what I was trying, though no less worthy. I still think the terms of the debate set in Cheap Truth were unfair to many of the people they criticized, and often just plain wrong. On the other hand, I was greatly taken by Bruce’s wit and intelligence (I’d always liked his writing) and we became good friends, to the point where we wrote a story together. He’s critiqued both of my novels and has attended almost every Sycamore Hill since the second one in 1985.
One of the questions Bruce put to me, and one that has recurred to me as I’ve written this, is why almost all of my fiction has been science fiction or fantasy. I remember an English department colleague telling me many years ago after reading some of my work, “You’re a good enough writer that you don’t have to write sci fi. Why do you?”
Of course my first reaction is anger at the assumption that good writers would not want to write sf. But lurking beneath that condescension is a legitimate question, one that Bruce asked me in our debate back in the 1980s. I’m not a particularly good extrapolator, or creator of alternative futures, or projector of technological possibilities. Many of my stories take place in the present or the past, or take off from other people’s fiction, or borrow plots from classic literature, or deal with historical figures. Why are they sf?
Perhaps it’s that I’m still ruled by that urge to escape that obsessed me when I was twelve. Even when I write about the here and now, the story never really takes off for me until I introduce some element of the fantastic. The fantastic element serves as a pry bar to open up reality and expose the mechanisms behind it. At least that’s the way my mind works. I am drawn to the gulf between the real and unreal, a gulf that inspires in me wonder, longing, and rage. Or laughter. Those are the emotions that occur most often in my fiction.
Today I’m a full professor, teaching American literature and creative writing at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. There I have worked with a lot of talented writers, among them Richard Butner, Andy Duncan, Chris Babson, Mike Jasper, David Wilson, Pam Duncan, Calvin Hall, Win Neagle, William Conescu, and Brenda Jernigan, to mention just a few, some of whom are well launched already in successful careers. Sue designs the journals for the Duke University Press. Our daughter Emma is eleven years old. Fatherhood is the best job I have ever had.
I don’t get as much writing time as I would like, but university teaching is still a very good job. My last novel, Corrupting Dr. Nice, was well received. I’ve dabbled in playwrighting and even in acting (Bruce and I had small roles in an independent film, The Delicate Art of the Rifle, about which the reviewer in the Raleigh News and Observer said, “English professor John Kessel, who plays Dr. Boaz, gives a funny performance for someone who has no acting ability whatsoever.”)
John, Sue & Emma, 2001, Raleigh, NC
One of my favorite film directors, Preston Sturges, was writing his autobiography at the time of his death. His working title for the book was The Events Leading Up to the End of My Life. People warned him that to choose such a title was to tempt fate, but he liked irony too much, and I suppose the fact that he had a heart attack in the Algonquin Hotel one evening while dictating it is a joke he would appreciate. How else could a book with that title end?
I don’t know when the end of my life will be, whether it will happen ten minutes or thirty years from now. I’ve enjoyed the spectacle and been extraordinarily lucky in my family and friends. Even though, like my father’s story about the motorcycle, I can’t say I know what it all means, I’m not so eager anymore to get out of here.