Inhuman Swill : Writers

Amid the staggering news of other losses this week, I want to remember to say a few words about Iain Banks, one my literary idols. (Two of my literary idols, really, if you care to think of his Iain M. Banks byline separately.)

I, like many of you, I'm sure, was stunned to tears on Wednesday morning by the news that Mr. Banks is suffering from late-stage cancer and probably doesn't have long to live. He broke the news in typically straightforward and mordant fashion, but that didn't make it any easier to take.

Iain Banks
Iain Banks is an important writer. I can't think of another writer who so consciously, so prolifically, and so successfully divided his output between serious mainstream fiction and rigorous hard science fiction. He proved, at least in the U.K., that one need not confine oneself to a single genre or style of fiction in order to maintain a brilliant career. It would have been impossible to guess from his twisted 1984 debut, The Wasp Factory, that just three years later he would affix a giant M to his chest like some superhero of letters, fly into space, and bring Consider Phlebas back to Earth, introducing us to what may at the time have been the most mind-expanding and humane future society ever invented, The Culture.

And Iain Banks is an important writer to me. His books can be found all over our house—on the science fiction shelves, on the mainstream shelves, almost always in the to-be-read pile on my nightstand, and even, in the case of his whisky travelogue Raw Spirit, on the alcohol shelf. He's a model of professional productivity, putting out a book nearly every year, and he's as fearless in his contemporary novels as he is visionary in his science fiction. (In 2002's Dead Air, he was already riffing on the meaning of 9/11 before other writers dared even think about it.) And his work is a constant inspiration to those of us who find ourselves attracted writing in more than one world.

I had always hoped to meet him, and never moreso than when I was bumming around Edinburgh drinking whisky with some of his friends. The news that I probably never will, and that the forthcoming The Quarry will likely be his last novel, is heartbreaking. I hope it's not true, but even if it is, Mr. Banks, you've already accomplished more than most of us ever will, and in doing so have always made the implausible look more than possible. Thank you.

No, this post is not about my marriage, which marks its 12th happy anniversary this year. This post is actually about writers and sensitivity.

Imagine yourself at the wedding of a close friend. You're there alone, having failed again to find a date to yet another big occasion. And it's not as if you didn't try hard. The frustrating thing is that things were looking really good with ol' what's-his-name for a while there. He seemed really interested, he did. You thought there was a good chance he might even be the one. But that was before he started acting all weird and distant, and stopped calling, or even returning your emails and texts.

So here you are alone at the wedding, again.

Oh, you're not alone alone. Most all your friends are here, and they're all happy to see you, but the thing is, they're mostly all married themselves. Everyone's nice enough to you, but you can sense a certain distance developing. It's nothing personal, you know that. It's just that for married people it seems somehow easier to relate to other married people. There are new concerns, new problems, new joys that come along with marriage, and that sets you apart from their world.

Oh, you know enough about those concerns and problems and joys, because, really, even though you're strong and proud and self-sufficient, there's nothing you want more in the world than to be swept off your feet and up the aisle, and you've been preparing for it. You're ready. And it's not even that your knowledge is entirely academic. You've done plenty of dating, and you've been in your share of long-term relationships. But in the end, they were all either too casual, or they just didn't end up heading where it looked early on like they were going to head. And you're still here alone, with no prospects.

You still remember the clutch of conflicting emotions that clogged your throat when your dear, close friend, all beaming and radiant, rushed up to show you that giant, sparkling ring she'd waited for and prayed for and worked for for so long. It was maybe the biggest ring you'd ever seen, and though you were so happy for her, so very, very happy, you couldn't help but feel that poisonous sting of jealousy deep inside. You swallowed it down and hugged her hard and told her all the things you needed to tell her, that you were thrilled for her, so thrillied, and that you wished her all the happiness in the world, and that no one deserved this more than she did,

Except, deep down, you know you don't really believe that. Oh, your friend deserves her happy day, no doubt about it. She is good and kind, and she worked so hard for so long and did everything right, and you can't believe this didn't happen to her sooner. But deep down, you know, you know.

You know that you deserve it more.

She worked hard, yes, but you were right there beside her, working just as hard, maybe even harder. You punished yourself at the gym all those years. You crawled through broken glass to get to where you are at the office. You went to all the right clubs and bars, put yourself in situations where you were most likely to meet the right people. And you were never less than entirely supportive to all your friends going through the same thing, there with them in the good times, and there to pick up the pieces in the bad.

In fact, when you look at it through your coldest analytical lens, the fact that you still haven't had your turn at the altar seems proof of one thing and one thing only—that it's as much luck as hard work that makes the magic happen. And that's the most discouraging notion of all.

But things can always get worse, and now they're about to, because you've just spotted your dear friend's busybody aunt making a beeline for you from the reception line. You look around in desperation, but there's nowhere to hide, and your friends have all vanished and left you defenseless. You've known this woman for almost as long as you've been friends with her niece, and you know what she's like, and you know what's coming, but that doesn't make it any easier.

After a minute's pleasantries, as you try not to wrinkle your nose at her boozy breath, she drops the bomb. "Now, really," she says with a conspiratorial frown, patting your arm in a way that makes your flesh crawl, "why aren't you married yet, dear? We all expected you to be snapped up years ago."

You hem and you haw, because no matter how many times you hear this, it doesn't get any easier. You try to make a case for how busy and successful you've been at the office, and how you've had all those close calls, how you were sure ol' what's-his-name was going to pop the question but he took a powder instead and you still don't understand why, his excuses were so lame, but the words get all jumbled up in your mouth because you don't owe this awful woman any explanations, she wasn't there with you through all the trials and heartbreaks.

But while you're still pushing out your feeble stream of justifications, while you finally admit in a hoarse voice that you just don't know why not, your friend's aunt only shakes her head, her eyes filled with superior judgment. "What it all comes down to," she says, patting your arm again, "you just aren't trying hard enough."

And as she begins to point out all the eligible bachelors in the room, offering capsule bios and suggestions of how to win them over, you have to just turn and walk away—rush away, really, because who is she to tell you you haven't tried hard enough?

Except the sting you still feel—the one that makes hot tears try to spray though you won't let them, you won't—is because, deep down, and I mean really deep down, deep down where you live, you're afraid that she's right. You really haven't tried hard enough, because if you had then wouldn't it have been your turn up there already? Wouldn't it?

You tell yourself you should just give up, that you'd be so much happier if you just didn't care about getting married, that you should just stop torturing yourself and make yourself content with everything you do have.

But though you can fantasize about giving up, when it comes right down to it you just can't go through with it. And though you know your friend's aunt is a hateful witch and that she's wrong wrong wrong, it doesn't matter. All you can do the next day is to hit the gym even harder, to keep on trying, and to keep on hoping.

"Why aren't you married yet?" It's a horrible, horrible question—and it's the equivalent of asking a struggling writer: "Why isn't that book of yours out yet?"

The answer is, I don't know. So just, you know, be a little sensitive, okay?

Now, there are plenty of ways this already strained analogy could be extended, to describe other questions to our hypothetical wedding guest that map well to our hypothetical struggling writer, and that would be either equally insensitive or far kinder. Please suggest some in the comments.

I have a few in mind myself, and may do another post in a few days to talk about them.

I'm in New York City today to hang out with writers, editors, and agents at the annual SFWA Reception for Industry Professionals, so maybe it's an appropriate day to post this radio interview. Gary K. Wolfe and I appeared this past Thursday night on WGN's "Extension 720 with Milt Rosenberg" to talk about science fiction, not to mention the new Library of America collection American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s which Gary edited.

We had a great time talking with Milt Rosenberg. You can listen to WGN's podcast of the interview online at, or hear the two segments of the show embedded below. Commercials and news breaks deleted!

10:00 - 11:00 p.m.  (43:59)

11:00 p.m. - midnight  (41:48)

I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at the Sanfilippo Estate last Saturday afternoon. I certainly didn't expect to feel as if I were literally walking into the mind of Gene Wolfe, but that's what it was like.

Engines The occasion was an evening to honor Gene Wolfe as the first recipient of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame's Fuller Award for lifetime contribution to letters. Since the Hall of Fame itself is reserved for dead Chicago writers—Nelson Algren, Gwendolyn Brooks, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Carl Sandburg, Ida B. Wells, Theodore Dreiser, and the like—the Fuller Award was created to recognize the achievements of great living Chicago writers. It was miraculous enough that the first Fuller was being bestowed upon a writer of science fiction and fantasy. The amazing setting for the festivities was like a bushel of cherries poured on top of a spun-sugar sundae.

As we guests arrived at the gated estate in Barrington Hills, we left our cars with the valets at the carousel house and either walked or rode in a shuttle over rolling lawns, past a rail line (no train in evidence, sadly), and around an expansive pond to a huge brick Victorian mansion. Even inside the soaring foyer, where I ran into Gary K. Wolfe, met Peter Straub, and chatted with Patrick O'Leary, I had no idea the wonders I was about to see. The mansion, you see, is more of less a museum of mechanical marvels collected by Chicago engineer and roasted-nut magnate Jasper Sanfilippo. As I wandered through three levels of the house, I saw orchestrions, pianolas, vionolas, music boxes, moviolas, record players, gaming machines, fortune-telling machines, and all manner of fin de si├Ęcle era devices in overwhelming profusion. The bright lights, brass, and air of seaside merriment continually reminded me of such Wolfe stories as "Seven American Nights" and "The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton."

Gene Wolfe receives the Fuller Award from Neil Gaiman At five-thirty, we all gathered in the theater, an immense balconied chamber draped in velvet and built to house the world's largest theater organ. Critic and scholar Gary K. Wolfe (no relation, of course, to Gene) opened the award ceremony with a quick history of the realist and fantastic traditions in Chicago literature and the building where they may once have shared offices. Neil Gaiman read the short story "A Solar Labyrinth," then presented the Fuller Award to Gene Wolfe, whose acceptance speech was itself an intricate flight of fancy.

Next we were favored with a staged reading of the story "The Toy Theater," adapted by Lawrence Santoro and performed with organ accompaniment by Terra Mysterium, all clad in their steampunkiest finery. Organist R. Jelani Eddington then performed half a dozen pieces on the 8,000-pipe organ, after which we were invited to walk back to the carousel house for the banquet.

Entering the Eden Palais Carousel pavilion If we had seen wonders already, no one was prepared for the bright-lit scene we encountered upon entering the carousel house. The Eden Palais Carousel toured France from 1890 until 1959, and resided in Colorado and Montana until Jasper Sanfilippo purchased it in 1987. It's the most complete example of a European salon carousel in existence. Our banquet tables were set up in the pavilion outside the carousel chamber itself, each table named after a Gene Wolfe novel. I found my place at Free Live Free, and was delighted to sit next to Patrick O'Leary and his wife Sandy Rice, and across from Sandman artist Jill Thompson. At each of our place settings was a signed copy of Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman's A Walking Tour of the Shambles.

The toastmaster for the banquet was Peter Sagal, host of NPR's Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!, who quickly established his geek bona fides by recounting his first reading of The Shadow of the Torturer at the age of fifteen, and how it taught him that science fiction could have more to say about the real world than realistic fiction. He then introduced a cavalcade of Wolfe appreciators who spoke for a minute or two apiece, including (and I know I will leave some out) author Michael Swanwick, author Patrick O'Leary, Gene Wolfe on the phantasmagorical Eden Palais Carousel author Luis Alberto Urrea, scholar Elizabeth Anne Hull (wife of Frederik Pohl), photographer Kyle Cassidy, author Lawrence Santoro, Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda, author Jody Lynn Nye, author Neil Gaiman, and Gene's long-time editor David G. Hartwell. (Hartwell related amusing stories of Gene calling him an inattentive reader.)

But that wasn't the end of the evening! Not by any stretch! As the dessert buffet and coffee station opened, anyone who wished was invited to enter the inner chamber and queue up for rides on the impossibly ornate carousel. I was one of the first in line, and during my turn on the carousel I got to watch Gary Wolfe, in one of the backward-facing carriages, shooting a photo of Michael Dirda on horseback. When our ride was done, I joined the crowd watching the second running of the painted horses, which included Gene Wolfe, Michael Swanwick ... well, why don't you just watch the video I took and see how many familiar faces you can spot whirling by?

I'm sure you'll understand when I say it was difficult not to grin like an idiot through the whole evening. As I was getting ready to leave, I asked Gary Wolfe, who was out in front of the carousel house smoking his pipe, if he'd had any idea what the Sanfilippo Estate was going to be like. David G. Hartwell finds focus on the Eden Palais Carousel "None," he said, adding that of all the long-time Chicago residents present he'd talked to, only one of them had ever heard of the place before the invitation to the award ceremony arrived.

You know, as the setting for a celebration of any other writer, the Sanfilippo Estate would have struck me as hopelessly over-the-top. For Gene Wolfe, however, it was perfectly apt. In fact, I can't imagine a better externalization of what I assume it's like inside his head. If only I had known what the occasion would be like, I would have begged Laura to change her plans and come along with me. I would have begged all of you to change your plans and come along.

But of course you can. Just pick up any novel or story collection by Gene Wolfe. I might start with The Fifth Head of Cerberus, if you're unfamiliar, or the collection Storeys from the Old Hotel. When you've warmed up a little, move on to the four volumes of The Book of the New Sun, and continue your exploration from there. Welcome to the labyrinth.

[More of my photos from the evening are here.]

Saturday, August 27, 2011
Dear Marc Maron

For some reason this is a hard letter to write. I'm a relatively new fan of your podcast and your comedy, having come to it all through the broadcasts on WBEZ, but it seems like ages I've been trying to compose a thank you to you in my head. I mean, how hard should it be just to say I appreciate what you do and your show means a lot to me? Especially for a writer like me.

WTF with Marc Maron I'm 44 years old. My wife and I live in Chicago. I'm a writer, mostly of science fiction. Nothing glamorous like film or TV—I'm talking the basic stuff, prose on a page. None of which really explains why I've been chewing my way so voraciously through your podcast archive, or why I feel such a connection to what you do.

Part of it, I guess, is some of the weird correspondences with my life. I was born in Highland Park, for instance, where you now live, though I only lived there until I was six. (I was in L.A. in February, and I called my mom in Utah and told her I was planning to go visit the old house on Aldama Street. She said, "Oh, I don't think that's a very good idea." I went anyway with my buddy Ashir—the neighborhood was fine—and was surprised to see how small the house was, to remember how steep the hill was, and to hear parrots or some shit squawking in the big old trees.) I lived in Astoria for a long time, same as you, and it might be the best place I've ever lived. (Did you ever eat at Kabab Cafe on Steinway near 25th Ave? My favorite place in the world.) 5340 Aldama St. You have hassles getting into Canada—I can't even go to Canada, thanks to a ridiculous incident in Calgary when I was a stupid young 19-year-old Mormon missionary. (It's a long story.) I was on Air America ... um, one time, when Ron Kuby interviewed me a couple of years ago about a podcast I was doing. (See how I'm grasping at straws already? I should reassure you that I don't think there's some mystical, brothers-under-the-skin bond here. Cats are nice, but I'm a fucking dog person, okay?)

And I've pretty much toiled away at my chosen craft, the the thing I wanted to do from the time I was a kid, for the past twenty years without much tangible reward. I mean, other science fiction writers know me, and I have a handful of fans, but I've somehow managed to dodge widespread attention and financial security all these years. I've published about thirty short stories and novellas, and one slim collaborative novel, but the most popular thing I've written by far is a guide to professional manuscript formatting that gets thousands of times more hits online than my fiction ever has.

Whoa, let me veer back from the precipice of bitterness here for a minute. Didn't mean to go there so quickly.

A big, big part of what I love about WTF is the sheer joy of hearing two professionals talk about their craft with intelligence, passion, and familiarity. It doesn't matter that your craft is comedy and ours is making up stories about spaceships and virtual reality. There is a tremendous pleasure in listening in while people who have thought hard about their art, worked tirelessly at it, and internalized the history and craft of it reflect on what a life dedicated to that pursuit is like. I identify with it. I hear things that seem like they're lifted right out of my own life and out of my friends' lives, and it strikes a deep chord in me. (It also makes me miss my writer friends in New York, and explains why I take every opportunity to meet up with them and others at conferences around the country and talk about writing and get smashed together at the hotel bars.) Damn, there's just something about the way professional artists talk—especially ones to whom language is so crucial—that sucks me in and takes me to a better place.

But okay. If listening to WTF helps me feel a little bit more connected to a community of artists, helps me feel a bit smarter and more insightful about my own art, the absolutely biggest part of what inspires me is your personal journey.

I feel like I've walked a lot of those roads. Early promise, steady publication, but not much notice. Near misses with success. Projects I poured my heart into that went nowhere. Shitty agents who didn't get what I was about, content to sit back and wait for me to generate my own buzz. Good reviews, respect from my peers, even major award nominations—great things that nevertheless mean fuck-all to anyone outside the industry or to my ability to support myself. Professional jealousy—the soul-killing bitter envy at seeing my friends' names on best-seller lists, or getting optioned for movies or TV—that has led me to pull away from important friendships, to my own detriment. Undermining myself in a thousand other ways. Asking myself time and time again whether it's worth it to keep on doing what I do, worth the cost of my sanity, worth the cost of lying awake at night knowing the clock is ticking, I'm 44, and what the fuck have I done with my life so far? Wanting to give up, stop writing, but unable to because there are still things to say, and still a little, perverse, unkillable germ of hope down in there somewhere.

Listen, Marc, I know you're not rolling in dough, and I know you've still got plenty of demons. But goddammit, you hung in there and did stuff even when it seemed like there was nothing left to do. The fact that you kept yourself in the game and turned it around in what must have seemed like the bottom of the ninth—that is a giant fucking inspiration to me.

And I'm trying to hang in there. I have a good agent now, who is also a friend and who gets my stuff. Finally, after twelve years of work, I've finished the Big One and handed it in, the memoir about that missionary incident in Canada. (It really is a good story.) He'll start shopping the manuscript around after Labor Day, and I will try to stop thinking about it and start working on the next thing, a novel. Because I'm a professional, you know, and that's just what you do.

Look, we both know that talent and craft and hard work are not in and of themselves guarantees of anything. But what you and your show remind me, and what I need so badly to believe, is that sometimes the final necessary ingredient for success is just fucking hanging in there long enough. Just fucking gunning the engine until the tires stop spinning in place and some traction catches. Thank you for that from the bottom of my heart. Thank you.

Please believe me that I mean it as the highest of compliments when I say that listening to WTF is the next best thing to sitting around and talking about science fiction. With my friends. Which is what you seem like.

Best wishes,
Bill Shunn

P.S. I fucking love your new album, This Has to Be Funny. I keep playing bits from it for my wife. I think she's getting annoyed with me and amused by me in equal measure.

I love the AMC series Rubicon so much that I tracked down a copy of one of the out-of-print collections of producer/writer Henry Bromell's New Yorker short stories from the '70s. I've started I Know Your Heart, Marco Polo, and so far I'm very taken with the hallucinatory prose style. Can't wait to finish it.

I think it's the first time that someone's television work has prompted me to seek out his or her fiction. Racing through The Wire is what finally prompted me to read David Simon's non-fiction Homicide, a book that had been mocking me from the shelf for twenty years. (Interestingly, Bromell also worked on the Homicide television series.) I started watching Justified precisely because I was a fan of the Elmore Leonard novels featuring Raylan Givens. (Of course, it also didn't hurt that Timothy Olyphant from Deadwood was playing the character.)

But I'm pretty sure the Bromell conversion is a first. If I keep enjoying the stories, his novel Little America, a semi-autobiographical (I gather) tale of a son trying to understand his father's C.I.A. career, sounds pretty interesting.

Any of you other Rubicon fans recognize the name Joseph Purcell?

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William Shunn

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