E.L. Doctorow (1931-2015)

E.L. Doctorow was one of the first writers I met.  This was at the Egg, Albany’s performing arts center, in the spring of 1990.  He was surprisingly soft-spoken.  He’d recently been named New York State’s state writer, an honor he treated with due irony, asking the audience who came to see him if we could name the state bird, and the state muffin.  He read an excerpt from the beginning of Billy Bathgate, his most recent novel, answered questions from the audience, then dutifully signed books.

I’d been aware of Doctorow for at least a couple of years–mostly as the author of Ragtime, which had been adapted for the big screen, but also of World’s Fair, which had been excerpted in one of those Scholastic magazines we got in English class.  I’m not sure how I learned that he was going to be reading in Albany; mostly likely from a poster for it in the English department at SUNY New Paltz, where I was a senior.  I got the idea that I would go see him, and convinced a number of my friends to accompany me.  Billy Bathgate was newly out in paperback.  I’d wanted to read it since reading its reviews, which were not just positive, but glowing; the upcoming reading gave me the excuse to buy and read it.

I was dazzled.  The combination of Doctorow’s prose–Billy Bathgate, who narrates the book, is, as Doctorow put it, “a rhapsodist”–and the subject matter–Billy becomes part of Dutch Schultz’s gang–held me spellbound.  It’s a potent blend, the lyric and the violent.  Plus, the novel was set in New York State, ranging from New York City to Saratoga.  Under the sway of Faulkner, I had been trying to make more use of local material in my own fiction; Doctorow offered a compelling example of it.  I neglected most of everything else I was supposed to be doing for school, preferring to linger over the novel’s pages.

When I handed Doctorow my copy of Billy Bathgate for him to sign, I told him this.  Actually, it spilled out of me in a rush.  I had been extremely nervous, standing in line to have my book autographed.  Reading the novel, I had formed a mental picture of Doctorow as this towering genius, well-above the concerns of a twenty-one year old college student.  Yet as I told him how impressed I was by the book, how I might fail all my classes because I’d been reading it, instead of what I was supposed to (a bit of exaggeration), but that was okay, because it was such a great book, his features softened, and I realized that he was moved by my babbling.  “Thank you,” he said, “thank you for telling me this.”

It was a moment of revelation:  he’s like me, after all.  And (by extension) if he can do this, so might I (some day).  It was as obvious as such revelations often are, but the effect was such it lingers, still.

In the years to come, I read more of Doctorow’s work:  Ragtime, and World’s Fair, and Welcome to Hard Times, and the astonishing Book of Daniel.  In recent years, I fell behind on his fiction; I kept meaning to get to City of God, but other things cropped up.  I’ve read enough, though, to know his accomplishment was considerable, and his works will endure.  I’m grateful for his fiction, and I’m grateful for his moment of kindness to a kid who was overwhelmed to meet him.

Billy Bathgate Cover

The Outer Dark Podcast

A few weeks ago, the very smart and talented Scott Nicolay e-mailed me to say he had a new project in the works, a weekly podcast featuring interviews with writers of weird fiction.  His lineup included people like Livia Llewellyn, Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, S.P. Miskowski, and Chesya Burke.  Scott wanted to know if I’d be interested in participating; I lost no time in saying I would.  The other night, we had a very pleasant phone conversation.  Scott assured me he would edit my rambling remarks into something resembling coherence.  So if you’d like to hear us discuss the Shirley Jackson Awards, and Jackson herself, and Jeffrey and Scott Thomas, and Peter Straub, and Laird Barron, and Laird Barron some more, here’s the link.

After Readercon

This past weekend I spent in Burlington, MA, at the 26th annual Readercon.  It’s probably the convention I most look forward to each year, because it’s the one the largest percentage of my writing friends attend.  This year was no exception:  I roomed with Paul Tremblay, and spent time with a raft of people including S.J. Bagley, Michael Cisco, Brett Cox, Joann Cox, Ellen Datlow, Gemma Files, John Foster, Mike Griffin, Liz Hand, Jack Haringa, Stephen Graham Jones, Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory, Nick Kaufmann and Alexa Antopol, Mike and Caroline Kelly, Sarah Langan, Rob Shearman, Justin Steele, Simon Strantzas, Peter Straub, Jeffrey Thomas, and plenty more whose names I apologize for forgetting.  Highlights of the convention included fiction readings by Mike Cisco, Gemma Files, Rob Shearman, and Paul, as well as this year’s Shirley Jackson Awards, which I mc’d for the first time without embarrassing myself or the awards too badly.  I read from my own work twice, first as part of a group reading for The Monstrous, Ellen Datlow’s newest anthology, in which my new story, “Corpsemouth,” appears, and then on my own on Sunday afternoon, after the Jackson Awards, to a surprisingly large audience, to whom I managed to read all of my story, “The Savage Angela in:  The Beast in the Tunnels” (forthcoming in Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer’s Swords v. Cthulhu).  In the midst of the convention came the awful news that Tom Piccirilli had lost his brave fight with brain cancer, and we raised a glass in his honor and memory that night.  There was flatbread pizza, and there was Korean barbecue.  Then the weekend was over, so fast I still can’t believe it, and it was time for the annual drive back west accompanied by Michael Cisco.  As ever, thanks to the Readercon crew for putting on such a great convention.  The Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll see you next year.

July Mourns: On the Passing of Tom Piccirilli

While I was at Readercon this past weekend, I heard the sad news that writer Tom Piccirilli had lost his fight against a recurrence of brain cancer.  He was fifty.  Like so many others who have taken to the internet to mourn his passing, I didn’t know Tom, personally.  That I remember, we corresponded once.  Like so many more, I knew Tom through his work.  And even as I mourn his passing, I’m struck by the accomplishment of that work.  Had he written only his 2003 novel, A Choir of Ill Children, his achievement would be secure.  The book is one that handily demolishes the cliche that horror can’t be written at novel length.  Tom followed the book with a series of novels that shuttle back and forth between horror and noir, as well as a host of shorter works that chart the same, shadowy territory.  It was one of these later works, his novella Every Shallow Cut (2011), that prompted our correspondence.  Bowled over by the story’s dark, relentless brilliance, I sent Tom an effusive e-mail, to which he replied in calmer fashion.  Years later, though, Every Shallow Cut continues to strike me as that overused word, a classic.

At Readercon, the annual Shirley Jackson Awards were announced.  It’s somewhat shocking to think that Jackson died at the age of forty-eight, so profound has her impact been on the fiction that’s followed her.  Reflecting on what seems to me the fundamental unfairness, the outrageousness, of Tom Piccirilli’s death, I also think of the writers to come, who will arrive at the shores of his work, and drink deeply of it, and carry it away with them, their eyes dark and shining.

Readercon 2015

This coming weekend, I’ll be making my pretty-much-annual pilgrimage to Burlington, MA, to attend Readercon.  It’s a fine convention dedicated to the fantastic end of the cultural spectrum, with a particular emphasis, as its name suggests, on written works.  If you happen to be in the neighborhood, stop by and check it out.  If you’re planning to be there, come up and say hi.  Here’s my schedule:

Thursday July 09

8:00 PM    G    All Literature is Regional. Susan Bigelow, Leah Bobet, Brett Cox, John Langan, Yves Meynard, Resa Nelson. Canadian author Alistair MacLeod once said, “All literature is regional.” How does regionality influence the worlds that speculative authors create, and the ways that readers approach those creations?

Friday July 10

8:00 PM    EM    The Monstrous . Gemma Files, John Langan, Peter Straub, AC Wise. The Monstrous Group Reading

Saturday July 11

3:00 PM    F    Shifting the Realism Conversation. Leah Bobet, Michael Cisco, John Crowley, John Langan, Yves Meynard. In a 2014 interview, James Patterson, not generally thought of as a fabulist, declared, “I don’t do realism. Sometimes people will mention that something I’ve written doesn’t seem realistic and I always picture them looking at a Chagall and thinking the same thing.” Meanwhile, the SF/F world is engaged in ongoing discussions about the value and meaning of realism in epic fantasy, particularly the variety that uses claims of realism to justify portrayals of violence, bigotry, and misery in cod-medieval settings. What shifts in these discussions if we adopt Patterson’s framing, setting modernism and abstraction in opposition to realism? What would abstract, modernist, Chagall-like epic fantasy look like? And would it work, or is some adherence to the real necessary in stories that explore the unreal?

Sunday July 12

10:00 AM    CO    Ghostbusting Lovecraft. Mike Allen, Gemma Files, John Langan, Adam Lipkin, James Morrow. In Max Gladstone’s blog post “Ghostbusting Lovecraft,” he writes: “Ghostbusters is obviously taking the piss out of horror in general. But while the busters’ typical enemies are ghosts of the Poltergeist persuasion, the Big Bad of the movie, a formless alien god from Before Time summoned by a mad cultist–cum–art deco architect, is basically Lovecraftian.” Unlike typical Lovecraftian protagonists, however, the Ghostbusters prevail over the eldritch horrors by exploiting the power structures and emotional connections that exist between people. Is the Ghostbusters story arc an alternative to the standard horror tropes, one that replaces fear with humor, defiance, and camaraderie? How else does it subvert our expectations of the conflict between humans and horrors?
12:30 PM    ENV    Reading: John Langan. John Langan. John Langan reads an excerpt from “Sefira,” the original novella in his forthcoming collection, Sefira and Other Betrayals.