I must be one of the last people among the middlebrow fanciers to have read Beverley Nichols. He is perfect bedtime reading: light, frivolous, witty, of an earlier period so there won’t be anything nasty in the woodshed, and unexpectedly moving. I first noticed his existence in a delightfully poisonous parody in Leonard Russell’s immortal Parody Party (1936), and thought ‘gardens’, ‘camp’, prissy’. Fool that I was: he is so much better than all that shoved together.
I found three of his memoir-novels in the Oxfam bookshop off New Oxford Street in London, one with a shabby but intact dust-wrapper with gloriously 1950s spindly pen-and-ink illustrations. After reading them, I was consumed with curiosity about his real life, rather than just his memorialised life, and I found some of his journalism in collected volumes in the library. I gobbled them up too, but with diminishing speed. As an ingénue celebrity journalist in the 1920s Nichols was waspish before his years, and he rather traded on the success of Twenty-Five (1926), a very good collection of brief but perceptive celebrity puff pieces, with Are They The Same At Home (1927) which is twice the length and half the fun.
I will begin with Merry Hall (1951). It is immediately after the war, and Nichols is looking for a new home because his former home in London has been bombed flat. He suppresses the pathos of losing all his belongings because many of his original readers would have suffered the same: it doesn’t do to complain when others are worse off. He seems to have money, at least, and drives about the Home Counties with and without his valet / cook / housekeeper / manservant Gaskin, looking for the perfect home. But it’s not just the home, it’s the garden. They search and search and nothing is perfect, until an advert in The Times leads them to the perfect ENORMOUS garden with a fairly large dilapidated manor house attached. Sold, with Oldfield, the attached cantankerous, miracle-working gardener, all found.
The Merry Hall trilogy (it was followed by Laughter on the Stairs, 1953, and Sunlight on the Lawn, 1956) is about the garden. Nichols is at his best when arguing and negotiating with Oldfield and Gaskin about what to put in his garden, how to nurture it, and what to scour the countryside for to suit the garden’s haughty and aristocratic tastes. The heavy horticulture is inspirational, though I have no intention of following any of his advice because it’s all rather lavish. It could also all be completely invented: one simply has no idea.
When Nichols is not rhapsodising about his lilies and the massive garden ornamentation he brings in to properly set off a simple patch of something pinkish and Latinate, he is fighting viciously with the neighbours. No memoir works without people to animate the setting, or to amuse the reader with their quaint ways. I have no idea whether the awful maiden ladies among whom Nichols spends the 1940s and 1950s actually existed, but in these memoirs they are rather too obviously modelled on Mapp and Lucia. Their battles are epic, and Nichols’ solutions in the interests of community harmony and natural justice are unscrupulous. The loathing he feels for these ladies among whom he is trapped is unexpected. His allies are even fiercer, and by the third book there is detectable misogyny: he must have been feeling the strain of a limited circle.
He is such a kind and gentle soul, I was taken aback by the reserves of vitriol he was able to summon. Or perhaps this was invented too: in such an artificial construct as these memoirs, which are as much about reinforcing the Nichols persona as about amusing his readers, nothing can be assumed to be real. I rather liked the way he simply doesn’t care about being charming and funny all the time: it’s refreshing to read about grumpy camp behaviour, well sharpened.
The anecdotes about restoring the house have less urgency than those about the garden and its plants. Nicholls will spend a chapter describing how a certain aspect or prospect was achieved by the placing of tons of stone and planting hundreds of bulbs, all to create a vista that will only be perfection in a certain aspect of a season. Whole rooms are restored and furnished in half the time, with half the attention. There is much rushing about with watering cans, and stern advice given about setting the watering water to warm throughout the day. There is arduous piano practice, and great attention paid to the placing of perfect pieces to best advantage, and hide the ragged but expensive carpet. It all costs a vast amount of cash, so Nicholls is furiously dashing off books about his garden and house to pay for the next delivery of bulbs and trees, and then he overspends on Chippendale or glass and has to write another book to pay for it all. No wonder he had to move. The Merry Hall trilogy is the second of three sets of three books about his homes and gardens, but I’m not sure that I have the devotion to begin again.
(PS There are also cats. Nicholls has a lot of cats, and the books are rather full of them. If you’re interested in that kind of thing.)
My feelings about the prevailing mood of the previous issues of Penguin New Writing have been borne out by the Foreword in this issue of autumn 1947, by John Lehmann himself.
‘Your Editor has had a dream. A mad, fantastic dream, not to be credited at all. [there follows a paragraph of escalating impossibilities] That Eton thought Harrow would do, and Manchester Grammar School decided to adopt top-hats out of respect to Eton?
No, none of these things. Something far more extraordinary. I dreamt that a brilliant new young writer had arisen and sent me in an MS. A funny writer.’
So there we have it. John Lehmann himself realised that the post-war issues were appallingly gloomy, and was looking for humour to leaven the weight of the post-war world in his pages. I find that very encouraging, because the sheer misery of the stories in this and the last few issues has been grim. Let us hope that Lehmann’s plea was heard, and that future issues have something funny waiting for us.
While waiting for Lawrence Durrell to discover his inner satirist, though, we shall do our duty and read some modern fiction for the good of our health. William Sansom’s ‘Various temptations’ is an assured, meticulous story of a man who strangles women he picks up, and how he does it. It’s frightening, not just because of the author’s assured use of tension, but because he expended so much effort in getting the details of this misogynist story exactly right. He’s written about murdering women in Penguin New Writing before.
Annabel Farjeon’s ‘San Spirito’ is the only piece in this issue that allows women to have opinions and not also suffer at the hands of men because of these. Though they do suffer. Two nurses in Italy with a day’s leave absentmindedly open a bottle of peach brandy while they enjoy the sunset and the peace around them. Before the brandy is finished we have learned that Hannah’s Jewish family have all died, and that Adina’s sister is in danger in Romania from their mother. At least they get to enjoy the brandy by themselves. Male authors, I venture to speculate, would invade the scene with lecherous doctors or patients and reduce the women to objects. Farjeon does not, and I am grateful for it.
William Plomer’s ‘The Naiad of Ostend, Or, A Fatal Passion’ is a sequence of delicate pastiches describing the difficult position of an early Victorian maiden at the seaside when she is consumed by a passion for swimming at all hours, and Neptune is consumed with a passion for her. Charming and dark.
James Stern’s ‘Solitaire’ tells the events that follow an Irish doctor’s ill-advised phone call to a girl he once met, and his invitation to take her out to lunch. The doctor is married, with a child, but chooses to live rather dangerously for a few hours in a New York restaurant with Stella, who knows his eight letters to her by heart and has been carrying the torch of all torches for him in all the years since they last met. A knife is waved, there is much being drunk, and one wonders why the idiot ever put himself in such a ridiculous and selfish position. Because, of course, the poor obsessed young woman gives him up all over again. She should have burnt the letters and had a life instead.
Dorothy Baker’s story ‘A little white cat’ also has an oppressed woman, the mother of Cyril, a fatherless child of the war who bullies her and his teachers and rules the roost because he knows no other way to behave. A colder, more unpleasant child I have never read. He loves a stray white cat, though, and pours all the affection of which he is capable over this oblivious animal, until he encounters a man who is tougher than he is.
Gwyn Williams’ two translated poems from medieval and Tudor Welsh are absolutely delightful.
There are two extremely long and not very interesting (to me) articles about poetry, by E Martin Browne (about whose wife’s book on wartime theatrical productions I wrote here), and Dame Helen Gardner. I ought to be more pleased to read Gardner’s writing, for she is a critical genius, but I’m not interested in Matthew Arnold at all. Sorry. Henry Reed’s essay about W H Auden in America is similarly erudite and important, I’m sure, but it’s not very readable.
Barry Hicks’ photographs of Eliot’s The Family Reunion, produced at the Mercury Theatre by Browne, are classically stagey, serious tableaux. The photographs of productions of Mardi Gras and The Vagabonds at Sadlers’ Wells are similarly attractive for recording staging and costume.
Ghika’s pre- and post-war paintings are glorious. I think he must be the Greek artist Nikos Ghika.
‘Lieut Z’’s ‘Military Detention’ is a long piece of reportage, on being in military detention, detailing the brutality and ill-logic of the system and the men placed in command of others. I hope the War Office read this piece carefully.
Sid Chaplin’s ‘The Cage’ is a tense vignette about miners ascending from the pit, when their cage gets stuck and the strands of wire begin to fail. It’s a thriller in miniature, unbearable to read.
Jocelyn Brooke’s ‘Blackthorn winter’ is cruel and unforgiving, and hopelessly, scrupulously true to human nature. It’s wartime, and a soldier is waiting to be sent abroad, and is missing his home and garden. He offers gardening help to a woman in the village, and a relationship develops, and it is so sad, and completely believable. The subtle shift from his to her perspective twists the knife decisively.
This issue of Penguin New Writing, from spring 1947, has a depth that the previous issues reviewed don’t seem to have achieved. John Lehmann goes all-out in his Foreword by saying that the fires that decimated London’s publishing offices and warehouses in the bombing in December 1940 did ‘the book-trade — and the authors who live from it — a notable service; it cleared off hundreds of thousands of third-rate books that had been clogging the market for years, and led to an astounding revival in sales for the intelligent novelist and critic’.
This is a fairly astonishing iconoclastic stance: booksellers and book historians have universally regretted the losses of archives, editions and plates in those fires, so it is bracing, and rather challenging, to read Lehmann expressing relief only a few years later that because of the need for new books ‘British booksellers no longer turned a lacklustre eye upon the so-called “highbrow” author’. Lehmann’s idea of such ‘highbrow’ survivals is disputable: ‘the kind of author whose work lives and is read when all the best-sellers of the day have been swirled away in Lethe’s waters’. He then ventures to hope that the present issue will be rich in this quality.
Looking at the contents page, Lehmann’s roster of ‘highbrows’ does indeed contain a slightly higher number of authors who are still being read, or have a recognisable name, in 2017: Graham Greene, Louis MacNeice, Boris Pasternak, V S Pritchett and John Lehmann himself. Others might be for specialists only, but they are still known, some of them even in print: Julian Maclaren-Ross, Henry Reed, Donagh MacDonagh, Tom Hopkinson (for his journalism) and Norman Nicholson. But so many of these names are poets, and only Greene (possibly also Pasternak for one famous novel) could ever be described as a best-seller.
However, let us not wallow in the hubris of 1947, but enjoy what it had to offer. Julian Maclaren-Ross’s piece of memoir, ‘Monsieur Félix’, is about beggars, exploring Marseilles as a child, and a master of Grand Guignol. Maclaren-Ross is better than a raconteur, he’s an artist in description who pulls you in. It doesn’t matter that this short piece may or may not be complete invention, it is story, good and proper.
Tom Hopkinson, more famous for his editorship of Picture Post and championing of documentary photographer Bert Hardy, ‘wrote several novels’ according to his online record. This is one of the most accomplished and readable short stories so far read in Penguin New Writing, a thriller crossed with a seduction narrative, and a masterclass in story construction.
Graham Greene’s ‘Across the Border’ is advertised as ‘an unfinished novel’. Not knowing his oeuvre well, I don’t know if this fragment was reused after 1947 by adding it to something else to become a real full-length novel. It’s certainly gripping, and drenched with anticipatory misery. A weak good man returns from a mining enterprise in Africa to report the evils wrought by his superior, to find that the company doesn’t care because they have faith in the bad man. And then we backtrack to read exactly how the bad the bad man is, and how weak and corrupt the whole bally enterprise is too. Is it classic Greene? It’s certainly grim, and would have been eminently expandable, had the war not intervened to wreck this world of 1930s colonial extortion.
Edward Burra’s ‘Miracle in the Gorbals’: all soft colours and bulbous figures, with pencilled character names attached to the grotesque portraits.
Leslie Hurry’s ‘design for the ballet Hamlet’ looks very commedia dell’Arte, with skull and a skullcap.
The author of ‘Growing up in Chad Street’, A C Wann, seems not to have left any online trail, so I can’t say anything more than I’d like to read more of their writing. It’s a story of how a small English town reacts to the woman who moves in next door to Peter and his family, when she starts carrying on with the itinerant pedlar and ex-bank employee. The men are envious, the women are furious, and she has what seems like a baby a year. It’s a remarkable portrait of the vicious responses to social transgression, the events seen through the eyes of an innocent and uncomplicated ten year old boy.
John Gielgud as Raskolnikoff in Crime and Punishment. Those eyebrows, that nose!
Sacha Carnegie’s ‘Snow’ is a haunting return to the brutality and horror of war. A soldier is reconnoitreing on skis, aware that the recent retreat by the enemy has left slaughtered and burnt-out villages all over the territory. Near dusk, he comes to a village where he thinks that no-one has survived, but hears the unearthly cries of a mother holding her dead baby in the snow, surrounded by her family and neighbours in a scene of true war atrocity. When the soldier returns next day with help, she has died, and the unit bury the village. Horrifying. The war is still a relentless memory in 1947.
New Writing, John Lehmann’s influential British literary magazine, first appeared in 1936, and fostered politically Left writers and artists. It stopped publication in 1950, with issue 40, just as Tennessee Williams and John Wain (for example) joined the contributors. I found issues 27 to 40 in an Oxfam shop, and bought them for a fiver. I’ll be reviewing each issue each week.
Issue 27 was the first issue to be published after the Second World War. The design was changed: new format, new typography, new paper, new picture-cover, new colour inset. Lehmann wrote a short but exuberant Foreword celebrating the magazine’s survival, and welcoming old and new contributors and readers. He is particularly nice about contributors’ patience, reliability and loyalty, and he is grateful to the readers who write to tell him what they liked and didn’t like. And there is a joyous outpouring of snark:
A special bouquet must go to the military gentleman (retired) who burnt us in his back garden in 1941 as German propaganda; to the German censor who refused us entry into the POW camps as Bolshevist propaganda; and to the unknown gentleman on the ‘bus who said we were the best British propaganda. Nor can we omit Mr James Agate, who obliges so unfailingly by finding us too highbrow for him, or Miss Olivia Manning of Jerusalem , who, like our little spaniel bitch Carlotta, gets her teeth into us whenever she finds us lying about.
James Agate had been a leading literary and theatrical critic for the daily and weekly press since the 1920s, so was a fixture on the scene that Lehmann couldn’t do anything about. I admire tremendously (but do not condone) the way Lehmann innocently puts ‘bitch’ and ‘Miss Olivia Manning’ into the same sentence, almost the same line.
You can see from the contents page that a great deal of the material was published in New Writing for the first time in the UK. Some were absolute standouts for me.
‘How Claeys died’, William Sansom’s dark story of an oblivious Belgian civilian touring post-war Germany, showing off his language skills. One of the many pieces in this issue that dwell on the aftermath of the war as a test of endurance, and festering tension.
‘Second-Lieutenant Lewis’, J Maclaren-Ross’s account of meeting Alun Lewis in camp, and how they maintained their friendship as writers and civilised men despite the military apparatus that regarded them with deep suspicion, since they continually broke the rules on inter-rank fraternisation.
‘Life Line’, by Jim Phelan – a remarkable Irish writer who lived a nomadic ‘tramping’ life – is a compelling but slight story, ostensibly about turf-cutting in an Irish peat bog, but is also about paternal expectations, the options for an adolescent’s escape, and the difference one child can make to a family’s economic survival.
‘Radio Critic’ reviews recent radio and media gossip from the past 6 months, and is an excellent corollary to other contemporary radio criticism, in The Listener and in Time and Tide, for example, if you’re interested in such things.
Osbert Sitwell’s long essay on Wilfred Owen is tremendous, and very Sitwellian: a rare resource for Owen scholars that apparently isn’t easy to find. I can send a pdf scan if you want it.
Roger Furse’s drawings, of ‘Newcastle Geordie’ in a sailor’s uniform, and ‘The Admiral’s Walk HMS Agincourt’: the detail of the crazy twisted staircase, the massive anchor chain and the lifeboat suspended from spindly metal arms remind me of illustrations by Mervyn Peake (Titus Groan was also published in 1946).
Sculptures by Gordon Herickx. On looking him up I see that he taught at Walsall School of Art, destroyed any of his work he considered imperfect, died the day after the opening of his first solo show, and that he was put into a poem by Louis MacNeice. There’s a LOT of scope for a thoroughly dreary masculine middlebrow novel there.
John Melville’s portrait of Henry Reed, one of the very few British poets of the war to be regularly anthologised. His ‘The naming of parts’ from Lessons of the War is a superb satire on military education and killing.
John Hampson’s Movements in the Underground 1: this is the first of a two part study on books and authors that your mother wouldn’t like, from Oscar Wilde onwards. Hampson was the author of Saturday Night at the Greyhound (1931), one of a group of Birmingham artists and writers (see also Melville and Herickx) who depicted working-class life. This survey is revealing evidence of what was considered socially and morally contentious in the 1940s, and why. Many interesting titles for the curious to research in the privacy of their own browser.
‘My right leg was Germany’ by Bernard Evslin is a compelling short story from a hospital ward full of amputees. It’s an early extract from a novel then in progress by this American author, who is now best known as a playwright and screenwriter, largely told in dialogue or first-person narrative. I see Emmet hitch himself out of bed and hump toward the latrine. He always manages to get out of the ward when Carruthers’ dressing is to be changed.
‘All this is ended’ by Norman Swallow is his first short story, an account of the obliteration of the battalion, told with a shocking combination of immediacy and neutrality, moving in an unsettling way from personal stories to impersonal reportage. Swallow became a leading documentary film-maker and editor for the BBC.
There isn’t much representation of women in this issue (I didn’t like the Farjeon story so didn’t mention it), so I’ll be keeping an eye on that, as well as looking for how the war maintained a presence in the magazine as it drew further away in time.
I posted a double review of Frank O’Connor’s autobiographies over on Vulpes Libris: An Only Child, and My Father’s Son. I learned a lot about Irish history, Irish literature, Irish convents and army pensions.
I knew about Alison Bechdel from her culture-changing idea of the Bechdel Test, that thing you ask of films, books and other cultural productions. If two or more women are having a conversation, if it about something / someone other than men? If the film or book can answer ‘yes!’, then it has something to say to more than one segment of the population and has a fair chance of not being gender biased. She was also awarded one of the 2014 MacArthur ‘Genius’ Awards, to allow her to keep writing and creating. Fun Home is far more than a graphic novel, because it’s a memoir, not fiction at all. (It was also made into a smash hit musical.) It’s painful, beautiful, poetic and symmetrically chilling. It’s about Alison Bechdel’s childhood in Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s, during which time she grows to realise that her father is more than an obsessive house renovator and the grim community mortician (Fun as in Funeral). He oppresses his family, but he also loves them, and he loves boys too, though is too closeted to come out. Thus the circle of escape, obsession, dictatorialness and unexpected admissions of pleasure continues. The story moves back and forth in time like a weaving shuttle, so the reader experiences layer after layer of story, with each new layer gaining texture and resonance from its foundation.
The sad and ordinary fact of Bruce Bechdel’s death, hit by a truck as he crossed the road, is examined again and again for clues and for answers. He took the children camping, he took them to stay with friends in New York (where he could go cruising at night on Christopher St), he had them cleaning and doing chores every day, he taught them to swim. Helen Bechdel, a former actress who gave up her dreams to be the mother of a family, endures her husband’s erratic ways and endless, casual affairs with angry endurance. She retreats into acting and a thesis, while he is in a world of his own, sourcing chandeliers and Victorian glassware, and foolishly buying beers for underage boys. The children separate as well (the renovated house certainly has enough space), so isolation and private experiences become normal.
When Alison goes to college she works out the name and the meaning of her own sexuality, which adds another layer to her relations with her father. She had loved men’s shirtings and suits as much as he did, and she fetishised the lines of a man’s body, wanting that shape for herself, as much as he wanted their bodies. The artwork tells more than half of this complex, shifting story, with frames repeated to silently show that yes, there was more going in here, in this particular exchange or event, than the younger Alison had noticed. Although the seven episodes of the book move back and forth in time in a patchwork of recollections and linked stories, the language of the narration begins simply, increasing in complexity as more understanding emerges. When moments of comprehension surface in the small or adult Alison’s mind, the effect is stunning: word and image working together simply and beautifully to hit the reader for six.
You can read this as a memoir of family life with an unusual proximity to death and its processes (I’ve barely mentioned the family funeral home business: that’s an entirely separate story). You can read it as a sad story of closeted homosexuality (Bruce), or as a satisfying and wryly self-deprecating memoir of an out lesbian at ease with herself and her life. You can read this as a book about the importance of reading the right book at the right time to realise the truth about sexuality, in all its manifestations. You can certainly read this book as a pointed rebuke at the pretentiousness of college English literature tutorials, and the dangers of obsessing over one particular text (Bruce was also a high school English teacher). We don’t read a lot about Alison’s brothers as adults, and perhaps that was by their wish. At the end of the book, her first acknowledgement is to her mother and brothers for ‘not trying to stop me writing this book’. Her portrait of her mother is understanding but also unsparing: Helen was an expert mother and an understanding woman but not warm or friendly. Those children lacked hugs. That family lacked warmth. It was not a fun home, by any means.
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home. A Family Tragicomic (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), ISBN 978-0-224-08051-4, £12.99
The science fiction novel that moved my reading tastes from adolescent dragon wonder to feminist space opera was Sassinak (1990), by the then immensely prolific Anne McCaffrey and the fairly unknown Elizabeth Moon. I had been a teenage McCaffrey completist, but once I’d read Sassinak – an engrossing space opera about planet pirates, orphan enslavement, naval training, in-ship subversion and space heroics with the totally magnificent Commander Sassinak (her only name) – I put the Dragons of Pern into a box and moved off into space with Elizabeth Moon. It wasn’t just the fresh (to me) new subject, setting and attitude. Moon is simply a far better author than Anne McCaffrey, and I was ready for the change.
Sassinak is one of the three Planet Pirates novels, planetary romances in what the ISFDB and ESF call McCaffrey’s Ireta series (ie the name of the planet), the others being Death of Sleep (1990) by McCaffrey and Jody Lynn Nye, and Generation Warriors (1991) by McCaffrey and Moon. They were planned to overlap with McCaffrey’s earlier novels Dinosaur Planet (1978) and Dinosaur Planet Survivors (1984). The latter are among the weakest of McCaffrey’s novels, and the time gap between their publication, at a crucial plot point cliff-hanger, shows how distracted McCaffrey was at this time, juggling the development of her Dragons of Pern novels into back-story spin-offs, and writing the first of the Crystal Singer series.
These five novels take place on Ireta, a purportedly uninhabited planet that has been chosen for Federated Sentient Planet exploration by a group of mixed ‘lightweight’ (ie regular) humans and Heavyworlders. These are humans who have adapted genetically to their strong-gravitied home planet, and who labour under a resentful and politicised sense of inferiority to the ‘lightweights’. When the Heavyworlders discover the carnivorous habits of the native animals, who appear to have been seeded there aeons earlier from Earth dinosaurs, their dissident members urge the others to embrace this chance to eat fresh meat, a taboo practice now on the ‘lightweight’ human worlds. This puts the ‘lightweights’ in serious danger, not just from the theoretical possibility of the explorers being eaten, but from the rippling implications for fragile interplanetary politics. Sassinak brings her Fleet cruiser through this system in covert pursuit of pirates, and the plot thickens.
The injection of 1980s value systems – vegetarianism, feminism, environmentalism, minority rights – is not particularly subtle, but the complex action works, and the novels’ function in McCaffrey and Moon’s proliferating FSP universe contributes necessary groundwork for what Moon would later do with her two Vatta’s War and Serrano Legacy series. In short, I rate the Planet Pirates series because of what Moon would go on to do with its rich background, not for what it offers the reader on its own merits.
After Dinosaur Planet Survivors came out, McCaffrey developed different series by writing with collaborators, effectively setting up her own franchises. After the Planet Pirates, she co-wrote the Doona books with Nye (which I have not read, being put off by Death of Sleep), and the much more successful ‘Brains and Brawn’ series. This developed the feminist cyborg space-ship concept from her The Ship Who Sang of the 1960s, writing with several collaborators, almost all women (though she did co-write one of these novels with S M Sterling, a bloke). Collaboration became an important mark of McCaffrey’s brand, demonstrating her creative generosity, and her eagerness to launch new worlds and new ideas with new writers.
I asked Elizabeth Moon how her collaboration with McCaffrey came about.
Moon: My introduction to the project was my then-publisher, Jim Baen, calling me up and asking if I would consider doing a collaboration with Anne McCaffrey. I knew McCaffrey’s work and liked it, so my immediate reaction was “YES!” I did not know anything about the details during that phone call, nor which of Anne’s worlds it was, or anything else.
Later I found out that I had been asked for Sassinak because of my military background and my known appreciation of Anne’s work. I never did know who mentioned my name first; Anne herself, Jim Baen, or the series’ packager, Bill Fawcett, but clearly Anne made the final choices. Right then, several senior authors in the field were starting to do collaborations with newer writers; Anne eventually worked with quite a few.
When Anne decided to try accepting collaborators into her worlds, she worked with Bill Fawcett, whom she already knew as a fan, editor, and packager well known in the field. Collaborations were becoming popular, and different kinds of collaborations existed and continued to exist for some time. Some were between ‘equals’ (writers of equal or near-equal publishing history and status) and some, like Anne’s, were between a senior writer and a very junior one, someone with only a few books out and who would benefit from the publicity of working with a bestselling writer.
So when I was offered the chance to collaborate with Anne, the three-book package was handed out to three junior writers: Bill Fawcett’s wife Jody Lynn Nye, another writer who dropped out of the project and whose name I unfortunately don’t recall, and me. Jody’s book was the ‘prequel’: Lunzie’s life before the Dinosaur Planet books, in Death of Sleep. Mine was another semi-prequel, covering Sassinak’s early life and intersecting the second Dinosaur Planet book when Fleet arrived. The other writer was supposed to write Generation Warriors, which carried on both Sassinak’s and Lunzie’s stories into the future. These contracts were then handed to each of us, and the books were to be written simultaneously, due at the same time. I had not met any of the other people involved.
Communication was a problem. Remember, this was in the late 1980s; the books came out in 1990 and 1991. I believe (would have to call Jody or Bill to ask) that they were on GEnie, and Anne was also on GEnie [a pre-internet text service]. They could communicate by email. I had no internet (accessing GEnie meant an expensive long distance call on our landline and then a very slow dial-up connection – couldn’t afford it.) We did not get a local internet provider until 1995 (still slow dial-up, but at least not with long-distance charges. Reliable cellphone service in this area didn’t arrive until 1998-99 when they built a tower close enough. I lived over 1000 miles from Bill and Jody in the Chicago area, in a small town in Texas. I’m not sure where the third writer lived but have a vague idea it was somewhere in the northeast. Anne of course was in Ireland, accessible only by snail-mail or phone (but the phone to Ireland was even more out of my reach than the phone to Chicago.) So almost all the communication was on paper, with a few phone calls between us. The questions and rough manuscripts went from us to Anne; she was certainly one layer in the editing process as well as the writing process.
The third writer dropped out late enough in the process that neither Jody nor I could have finished the book for its original due date, and Jody had another contract she was in the middle of. So I was offered it, and started from scratch with the original notes Anne had provided. By then Anne was deep in other projects, and I had met her, so it was easier to communicate and – since she’d liked my work with Sassinak – she gave me a lot of freedom to develop some things on my own. The book required multiple point-of-view characters, and thus was a wonderful ‘stretch’ to what I understood so far.
So I wasn’t writing in daily contact with any of the others. Jody’s book and mine were separated by all of the first, and most of the second, Dinosaur Planet book – we had no real reason to compare what we were doing. Where my assignment overlapped the end of Dinosaur Planet Survivors, I just used the Lunzie as Anne had written her in that book.
It was different for Generation Warriors – and the delay in that one worked to my advantage, because I had Jody’s book, all complete, and could use all the things she had contributed to Lunzie’s history and character, to inform the Lunzie of Generation Warriors. It would’ve been very difficult to write the third without the first two already in hand. Perhaps that’s why the other writer dropped out.
Despite the difficulties inherent in communicating long-distance without internet, I found working with Anne to be a great experience. I could ask her about anything that was giving me trouble – characterization, how to make a certain kind of transition, for more background on one of her characters, and so on. She was incredibly generous with her time and attention; she never made me feel like a nuisance. And it was a master class – her answers were brief, pointed, crystal clear. (Years later, I could still ask her about problems I was having with my newer stuff, and she was just as willing to help.) She was also generous in sharing her ‘sandbox’ – letting her co-authors introduce things, including characters. I met her at the launch event for Sassinak, and after that we became friends.
The most striking example of how Moon, Nye and McCaffrey developed the same character in different ways was in the use of the Theks, floating pyramidal sentient beings of silicate origin, with enormous telepathic power, the most impressive in the Federated Sentient Planets universe. On their first appearance, in Dinosaur Planet, McCaffrey treats them with reverence and irreverence at the same time: ‘it was difficult to know a Thek elder from a rock until it spoke, but a human could perish of old age waiting for the word’. Thus there were tonal choices for developing these lifeforms, and Moon and Nye made different choices. The importance of the Theks in this universe means that their characterisation underpins the tone of the novels. By allowing divergence in their treatment, collaborative writing made the Planet Pirates novels even less likely to work together as a sequence.
Moon developed the Theks by giving them meaningful cooperative relationships with humans, showing how mutual respect breeds collaboration (much like her own relationship with McCaffrey). Her, or their, most effective elaboration of the Thek in Sassinak was to give it a sessile life stage, inert and anchored in a tank, but fully integrated with all ship systems, and a potentially crucial part of enhanced lightspeed flight modes due to Thek mathematical abilities. This sessile larval form – more like a giant coral fan than a slug – is an inspired solution to the problem of how to get Theks integrated enough into human society and into Fleet as serving officers, without floating pyramids engulfing the ships. When humans learn enough about Theks to be able to identify individuals, that signals the beginning of a healthy working relationship. In Sassinak, the sense of wonder is multiplied by Moon’s marvellous enhancement of McCaffrey’s original idea.
My thanks to Elizabeth Moon for her cooperation with this interview, and for checking the facts. The opinions expressed are my own.
Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Moon, Sassinak (1990)
Anne McCaffrey and Jody Lynn Nye, Death of Sleep (1990)
Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Moon, Generation Warriors (1991)