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Kate Wilhelm: An Appreciation
As if it's a violation of client/lawyer confidentiality, people generally consider it bad form for editors to write appreciations of the writers they edit. State secrets might be revealed, mistakes made; working relationships can get damaged.
However, since Kate Wilhelm's photograph has appeared under the definition of professionalism in my book---and has been fixed there for more than a decade---I felt an exception could be made. I've been hankering to write this piece since I first interviewed for the job of F&SF editor in 1996. You're not going to stop me now.
Besides, by having worked at Bluejay Books and then at St. Martin's Press and now here, I've been in a unique position of reading all the reviews for Kate's books, of hearing many people's thoughts on the woman and her works---so I think I've got an inkling of just how much her work has meant to people.
I've taken the phone calls from writers who say they owe it all to Kate. I've lunched with editors who complained that the new Kate Wilhelm novel isn't in their favorite series (and by the way, this one editor doesn't really see herself in Barbara Holloway's relationship with her father). I've had top-rank writers ask me sotto voce what strings we need to pull to get SFWA to name her a Grand Master. I've had several writers quote me verbatim the words Kate used when she touched on the key element in their writing while critiquing their work. And I've shared moments with other professionals when they've put aside any suave facades and admitted that one story of Kate's or another brought us to tears.
I like to think this gives me some authority in calling Kate Wilhelm well-loved.
Let me start by confessing that I have not read every work of Ms. Wilhelm's. My hunt for her elusive 1 third novel The Nevermore Affair only recently bore fruit. Other books have sat patiently on the shelf, abiding. There is a strong sense in Kate's work that things have their proper times and places; it does not do to rush, so I do not rush. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang I have not reread; the fourteen-year-old kid who found it at a garage sale in Norwood, New Jersey, expects that it will be better on the next reading, but I can't help feeling that some djinn of my youth might fly away when this particular bottle is unstopped. The proper time will come.
The stories I have read---two dozen novels out of three, perhaps eighty of a hundred stories---say a lot about Kate Wilhelm. Her women are not afraid of being smart, not afraid of being themselves, but often they find life kaleidoscoping uncontrollably around them. Her men are strong enough to show their love. Heroes rarely need to use force; villains tend to be people who aren't honest with themselves. Human behavior and the physical world both pose mysteries worth solving. One need not span the globe to find good stories. Kate's characters generally prefer to dig their fingers into the soil they call home, and they like the feel of dirt and hard work. Good food should be savored, life need not be led in quiet desperation, at the highest level of heaven awaits a fresh pot of coffee.
Perhaps you'd like a cup now?
Katie G. Meredith was born in Toledo in 1928 and to her credit, I've never seen her make an attempt to hide this date. She and her brothers and sister grew up in Kentucky. She married fairly young, had two sons with Mr. Wilhelm before the marriage fell apart. Here's her author bio from 1962, when her first novel, was published:
Kate Wilhelm wrote this novel between the hours of 9 P.M. and midnight, when her two children were in bed. Cleveland born, [sic] she has spent most of her life in Kentucky. She has been an insurance underwriter, long-distance telephone operator and professional model. Her interests include astronomy, spelunking, hypnotism, lapidary work and fishing. At present she lives in Milford, Pennsylvania, where she is at work on her second novel.
The accompanying photo shows a dark-haired woman with startlingly clear eyes looking off-camera with a gaze that might be termed visionary and a trace of a smile on her lips to make Mona Lisa jealous.
You'll note the author bio mentions that she lived in Milford at the time. As many readers of this magazine already know, her home there was a big Victorian house called the Anchorage with her second husband, a writer and critic by the name of Damon Knight.
The reason so many readers are aware of this fact is because Kate and Damon hosted many many writing workshops there. I can't recall for certain if they met at a workshop, but as far as the history of science fiction is concerned, they might as well have. By way of writing groups in Milford, Clarion, and eventually in Eugene, Oregon (their home for the past three decades), Kate and Damon have consistently surrounded themselves with vibrant literary communities---they've practically raised contemporary American science fiction.
The Milford days in particular have attained a status approaching myth: the players include most of sf's leading lights (Judith Merril, Virginia Kidd, Ted Sturgeon, etcetera and etcetera). The stories and anecdotes, such as the group-mind incident (recounted by Damon in The Futurians) that inspired More Than Human loom larger than life. Recently I had the privilege of viewing a short film that Ed Emsh made in Milford entitled The Monster from Back Issues. The spoof starred Damon, Algis Budrys, and Ted Cogswell, among others. Viewing it at David Hartwell's house with Emily Pohl-Weary (Judy and Fred's granddaughter) gave me the extra sense of watching an old film of the collective science fiction family.
A few more words about the writing workshops are in order here. In A Pocketful of Stars Kate wrote about her first workshop experience: she turned in an ambitious story and had it shredded. The man sitting next to her turned in some trivial fluff and got gentle, kid-glove critiques. After the workshop drubbing, Kate went down to the nearby stream and threw rocks at the water as hard as she could, until she realized her fellow workshoppers treated her story firmly because they respected her and felt the story had potential. I recount this incident every time I'm in a workshop and almost every time I speak with someone who has been in a workshop. In fifty years, the anecdote may well be a twentieth-century tale of Hera's entry to Olympus.
Since that first workshop, Kate has hosted hundreds. She and Damon helped Robin Wilson found the Clarion workshops and for more than twenty years they taught the final two weeks. I saw Kate in action once, about ten years ago, and marveled at her ability to analyze a story and gently but firmly bring out the weaknesses in a constructive manner. It is no wonder that writers can quote her twenty years later. It is no wonder that the roster of writers she helped foster includes such luminaries as Kim Stanley Robinson, George Alec Effinger, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Robert Crais, Nicola Griffith, Lucius Shepard, and dozens more. In the year 2000, all four winners of the Nebula Award for fiction were former students of Kate's.
But a great teacher is not necessarily a great writer and it's rare to find both skills in one person. Kate is a lifelong student of the craft of fiction, which probably helps explains the path of her career. She began selling stories to the sf magazines in the mid-1950s and, as the accompanying bibliography shows, was selling rather steadily to a variety of sf magazines. Her first novel, More Bitter Than Death, was a mystery. Clayt Rawson, her editor, said that if she stuck to one genre, Kate would become a bestseller . . . but Kate told me, "I couldn't do it." Those many interests in her bio notes (which, in truth, only scratched the surface) would take her in too many directions.
Having come to the early work late, I have to admit that I haven't found it as engaging as the joys to come. I was struck by John Campbell's comments to Kate in a 1957 letter:
You have an easy, pleasing and readable style, one that would, moreover, be a marked change in science fiction. However, your stories have rather hazy, gentle motivating forces behind them---which, while that too is somewhat different in science fiction, is not quite so desirable a difference.
Ah, I thought when I encountered this letter in the first volume of Campbell's letters. Here at once is what she brought to the field initially, and perhaps a reason why the early work doesn't compel me.
With history to show, it's easy to say now that Kate's work didn't blossom until the mid-1960s, when the New Wave opened up the sf field to more experimentation. In particular, an anthology series known as Orbit, edited by none other than Damon Knight, gave her a place to experiment. (I think the fact that many of Kate's stories feature scientists with experiments gone wrong---or right---reflects her own interest in testing out new approaches to storytelling.) Kate went on to publish a score of stories in Orbit, including masterpieces like "The Infinity Box," "The Encounter," and the original novella of "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang," firmly establishing herself as a top-flight writer. Her novels in this period moved away from the more conventional sf elements and began exploring new psychological territory---books like Margaret and I (pity that John Campbell never got to experience the motivating forces in this one) and Fault Lines moved wherever the story took them, regardless of genre conventions.
"The problem with labels," wrote Kate in 1975, introducing The Infinity Box, "is that they all too quickly become eroded; they cannot cope with borderline cases." The borderline cases tend to be the ones that interest Kate, and the deception of appearances is a consistent theme in her books, especially the Barbara Holloway novels.
By the mid-1980s, when I first got to work with her, Kate had started writing the Constance and Charlie mysteries along with romantic comedies such as Oh, Susannah! and Crazy Time. In 1990, she blended chaos theory with the legal thriller in Death Qualified and had her biggest commercial success to date. (State secrets revealed? Here's one: during the negotiations for Death Qualified, Kate said the reason she'd parted ways with her previous publishers had always been because she wrote a book the editor simply didn't get. I ask you, what's not to get in a novel that's partly a whodunit, partly a courtroom thriller, partly a science fiction novel about chaos? Labels do indeed erode.)
Never one to repeat herself or write the same book over again, Kate surprised everyone when she found that Barbara Holloway, the lawyer heroine of Death Qualified, offered her the best way to tell another story. Here's how Kate described it in 1994:
I was convinced that I had finished with my character Barbara Holloway when I completed the novel Death Qualified, and I was surprised when she kept coming to mind in various scenes for which I had no story. I wasn't even trying to imagine her in a real situation much less a novel again, but there she was, a presence in my mind. One image of her in particular was maddening in its persistence: she was standing on a cliff overlooking a small cove, speaking to the ocean. But I didn't know what she was saying.
Then, while on vacation, I met a young woman who began to talk about her problems with a younger brother who was mistreating her, hitting and slapping her. She had an answer for every suggestion I offered. She can't defend herself; he is much bigger than she is. She can't complain to her parents; they take his side and the attacks become more vicious. She can't leave; her brother and her father would make her mother suffer the consequences. Then she said her father had brutalized her mother for as long as she could remember, and her mother is stuck because she has no place to go, no one she can turn to, and she has no skills to earn a living by herself.
In four months, Kate wrote The Best Defense. That anger that sparked the book does not typify all of Kate's work, but I mention it because it represents the passion that goes into her fiction. People frequently dub Kate Wilhelm a feminist writer because her books often feature strong women characters and often deal with women's issues, but I've never seen Kate as writing to any particular ism. She writes about the things that are important to her; be the subject the over-medication of the mentally ill, a woman's right to choose, or something as "simple" as the matter of love, she brings wisdom and passion to bear in depicting it.
There is also extraordinary intelligence at work in her fiction. One of Kate's mystery novels hinges on the use of the "morning after" abortion drug, RU-486. Half a decade later, I was in an editorial meeting in which a mystery using the same plot element was being touted as the next big commercial thing, and I realized once again how often Kate grasps a new concept, turns it over and around, and holds its flaws up to light before most people have even recognized it for what it is. Small wonder her stories seem to be ahead of their time so frequently---twenty-five years before "Survivor" hit the TV screens, she practically predicted it in "Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis."
Before I get carried away and take over the bulk of this issue, let me restrain myself to a few more points:
* The role of family in Kate Wilhelm's work is an essay in itself (if not an entire book)---her portraits and studies of siblings, married couples, and children are assured and perceptive. One critic told me he saw Constance Leidl and Charlie Meiklejohn as stand-ins for Kate and Damon, but I find the resemblances superficial. It's definitely true, however, that family plays a big role in Kate's life as well as in her fiction---in fact, she collaborated with her son Richard on one book, and note whose work graces the cover of this issue.
* Another state secret: the last part of a story Kate usually writes is the title. People in the sales department at St. Martin's didn't like the title "Death Qualified" and threatened to rename the book "The Butterfly Effect." (These included some of the same people who felt that "The Silence of the Lambs" was a weak title.) Kate's working title for the novella in this issue was "What Color Were Leif Ericson's Underpants?".
* In high school, Kate took an employment aptitude test that told her she was meant to be an architect. Before you laugh, think of how prominent a role buildings play in novels such as Smart House, The Good Children, and Cambio Bay. If you ever get the feeling that you could find your way around one of the houses in Kate's books, that might be because she draws maps of the major locales for her books while she's working on them.
* At one point, I found myself hard-pressed to identify what literary traditions fostered her fiction---for someone who is so very widely read, Kate Wilhelm's work strikes me as being very independent. Then I sat on a panel at an sf convention in Ohio in which we discussed what (if anything) characterizes Ohioan fiction. Maureen McHugh and the others (including Ron Sarti and Juanita Coulson) very eloquently summed up the characteristics of what Maureen dubbed "heartland" fiction---modest, independent, suburban fiction that's far more interested in average folks than in supermen. I cited Leigh Brackett and The Long Tomorrow as a prime example . . . and I find that Kate Wilhelm's work fits in this tradition. Somewhat. Hers is not fiction that can be pigeonholed easily.
In that mordant way of his, Barry Malzberg said that he went through a period of reading lots of writers' biographies until he realized they all follow the same pattern: early struggles, followed by a big success, after which there's the long slow descent into despair and substance abuse. There's plenty of truth to this observation, but let's remember too that this romantic model sells books far better than does the story of someone who devotes herself to craft, who favors nurturing to self-destruction, whose drug of choice is caffeine, and who manages to spin out yarns year after year that amuse, enlighten, entertain, and entrance. Such writers might not get the obsessive fascination that belongs to the live-fast-die-young victims, but every now and then, at times like this, we can try to tell writers like Kate Wilhelm just how grateful we are for all the joy they've given us and how much we look forward to the stories yet to come . . . and we can hope that's enough.
1 A book dealer once told Kate that several of her books were too scarce to qualify as "rare".
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Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide