Michael Bishop


An Heir to Homer
A memoir by Michael Bishop

      A nervous, khaki-clad twenty-two-year-old, I reported to the United States Air Force Academy Preparatory School in the summer of 1968.  I had my master's degree in English (with a thesis on the poetry of Dylan Thomas [Dylan Thomas' Obscurity: The Legitimacy of Explication] ) and one professional publication to my credit, a three-stanza poem ["An Echo Through the Timepiece"] owing obvious debts to John Keats and Alan Tate, which my creative-writing instructor Marion Montgomery had pushed on James Colvert, then editor of The Georgia Review.  I had received an oxymoronically encouraging rejection letter from The Virginia Quarterly for a grim tale of murder, "The Birthday Weapon", and I hoped that my teaching duties at the Prep School would leave me a little time to write.  Certainly, I needed to sell a story or two before I separated from the Air Force.
      For an office mate at the Prep School, I had the good luck to draw Captain Klaus Krause, who had come to this country from Germany at age ten and who had master's degrees in both physics and English.  Klaus, noting my lack of success at such markets as Esquire and Harper's, suggested that I write some science fiction — and submit it to Galaxy or Fantasy & Science Fiction.  He introduced me to two classics, Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End and Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, [see More Than a Masterpiece] and, after Jeri and I had married, took us both to a meeting of a Denver science fiction club at which, predictably late, fantasist Harlan Ellison showed up as guest.  Ellison passed around a cover proof of his collection The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World and read aloud his story "One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty", which Damon Knight had purchased for his prestigious series of Orbit anthologies.  Afterward, I had Ellison sign my copy of Paingod and Other Delusions and committed the faux pas of asking him if he'd ever written a novel.  (He had published at least three.)  Ellison's energy, commitment, and suffer-no-fools attitude sent me away from that basement room in a Denver bank semiconvinced that I could make a career too.
      Around this time, I wrote a story about three Chicano brothers who find a winged creature in the snow in southeastern Colorado while gathering piñon nuts.  I had no title for this piece until Klaus suggested "Piñon Fall", which had at least two apposite connotations and gave me the impetus to send it out to market.  Edward L. Ferman at Fantasy & Science Fiction, or one of his assistants, slingshot the story back to me within two weeks, such a sudden turnaround that I felt sure no one had read it.  On to Galaxy, where "Piñon Fall" remained for so long that I figured it had gone astray in the mails.  An inquiry, with a return postcard, vanished down a gravity sink.  Writers without at least one calling-card sale had no identity, and the extent of my facelessness was galactic.
      As a result, one night I dreamed that I journeyed to the editorial offices of F&SF in New York City (even though my conscious self knew that Ferman lived and worked in Cornwall, Connecticut) to argue the merits of my fiction and to protest its recent arbitrary rejections.  Ferman's dream office occupied a skyscraper's topmost floor, whose corridor I reached only after an interminable elevator ride.  When I stepped into this corridor, though, I saw that I had come in vain.  Helmeted men bearing machine guns stood sentinel outside the editor's door and let no clamorous tyros pass. . . .
      One afternoon in my third-story Prep School office, I got a telephone call from Jeri.  Ejler Jakobsson, editor of Galaxy, had just telephoned praising a story titled "Piñon Fall".
      "What did you tell him?"
      "That you were at work," Jeri said.  "Just wanted to warn you that he might call you there.  'Bye."
      Shortly after Jeri rang off, Jakobsson did call.  "I have a beautiful story by one Michael Bishop.  I'd like to secure it for Galaxy.  Would a hundred dollars be all right?"
      Briefly, I floated above the valley outside my window.
      Later I recounted Jakobsson's words to a colleague in the English department, Michael Brown.  "A hundred dollars?" Mike said.  "You should have asked him if you could pay it off in installments."

      With the check we received, Jeri suggested buying something commemorative of the sale.  We settled on a painting by Richard Schlect — actually, a reproduction — of a rocking chair at either sunrise or sunset on the porch of an old Southern farmhouse (we chose to see it as Southern), and we hung the reproduction in our fourplex apartment on Westmoreland Avenue.  Today, it hangs behind our kitchen table here in Pine Mountain; you can see it on the wall behind me in Patti Perret's photographic study, The Faces of Science Fiction (Bluejay Books, 1984).
      The first fiction sale foretold the direction of most of what I would write over the next quarter century.  It confirmed me in my conviction that although I would always struggle to command my materials, to sidestep the derivative, and sometimes even to get the work done at all, I was in fact a writer, an heir to Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, a virtual contemporary of Cather, Kafka, and Faulkner, an upstart colleague of Aldiss, Bradbury, and Le Guin.  I list these names not to imply that my work rivals that of any of these models, but to underscore my reckless sense of kinship with all who revere the word and who wield it regardfully.  I would rather fall short of my aims, as I have often done, than to lapse into a wary but unimpeachable silence.

From "Military Brat: A Memoir", Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series
Published by Gale Research, © 1997.
Reprinted with permission from the author

Photograph by Patti Perret from The Faces of Science Fiction
Published by Bluejay Books, © 1984 by Patti Perret

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