Kilian, Crawford 1941-
KILIAN, Crawford 1941-
PERSONAL: Born February 7, 1941, in New York, NY; naturalized Canadian citizen, May, 1973; son of Victor William Cosgrove (a writer and engineer) and Verne (a teacher; maiden name, Debney) Kilian; married Alice Hayes Fairfax (a teacher), April 8, 1966; children: Anna Catherine, Margaret Cathleen. Education: Columbia University, B.A., 1962; Simon Fraser University, M.A., 1972. Politics: New Democratic Party.
ADDRESSES: Offıce—4635 Cove Cliff Rd, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V7G 1H7. E-mail— [email protected]; [email protected]
CAREER: Freelance writer, 1962-63; Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, Berkeley, CA, library clerk, 1965-66, technical writer and editor, 1966-67; Vancouver City College, Vancouver, British Columbia, instructor, 1967-68; Capilano College, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, instructor in English, 1968—, coordinator of Communications Department, 1975-83; writer-in-electronic-residence, 1990-92, 1995. School trustee in North Vancouver, 1980-82. Guangzhou Institute of Foreign Languages, Canton, People's Republic of China, foreign expert, 1983-84. Chair, Summer Pops Youth Orchestra Board, 1989-91; member of board, Canadian Institute of the Arts for Young Audiences, 1990-91; patron, Friends of the Library, North Vancouver, 1996—. Military service: U.S. Army, 1963-65.
Wonders, Inc. (juvenile; also see below), illustrated by John Larrecq, Parnassus (Berkeley, CA), 1968.
The Last Vikings (juvenile), illustrated by David Simpson, Clarke, Irwin (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1975.
Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia (nonfiction), University of Washington Press (Seattle, WA), 1978.
The Empire of Time (novel), Del Rey (New York, NY), 1978.
Icequake (novel), Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 1979, Bantam (New York, NY), 1980.
Eyas (novel), Bantam (New York, NY), 1982.
Exploring British Columbia's Past (nonfiction), Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 1983.
Tsunami (novel), Bantam (New York, NY), 1983.
Brother Jonathan (novel), Ace Books (New York, NY), 1985.
School Wars: The Assault on B.C. Education (nonfiction), New Star (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 1985.
Lifter (novel), Ace Books (New York, NY), 1986.
The Fall of the Republic: A Novel of the Chronoplane Wars, Del Rey (New York, NY), 1987.
Rogue Emperor: A Novel of the Chronoplane Wars, Del Rey (New York, NY), 1988.
Gryphon (novel), Del Rey (New York, NY), 1989.
Greenmagic (novel), Del Rey (New York, NY), 1992.
Redmagic (novel), Del Rey (New York, NY), 1995.
2020 Visions: The Futures of Canadian Education, Arsenal Pulp Press (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 1995.
(With Leslie Savage, Azza Sedky, and Martin Wittman) The Communications Book: Writing for the Workplace, 1996, revised edition published as Writing for the Electronic Workplace, 2001.
Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, Self-Counsel Press, 1998.
Writing for the Web, Self-Counsel Press, 1999, "Geeks" edition, 2000.
A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (adaptation of the novel by James De Mille), Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC), 1972.
Little Legion, CBC, 1972.
Generals Die in Bed (adaptation of the novel by Charles Yale Harrison), CBC, 1973.
Wonders, Inc. (adaptation of his own book), CBC, 1973.
Senator Connor's Big Comeback, CBC, 1974.
The Mob Has Got the Bomb, CBC, 1976.
Also author of the e-books Bring the Jubilee: A Decade in Computer Education and Work in Progress: Collected Essays, 1972-2002.
Contributor of articles and book reviews to Journal of Canadian Fiction, Dalhousie Review, Georgia Straight, Vancouver Sun, Globe & Mail, Western Living, Quill & Quire, B.C. Teacher, Step, Vancouver Forum, Vancouver Review, Home & School, Internet World, Infobahn, Educom Review, Technos, Education Digest, and Offı[email protected] Education columnist, Vancouver Province, 1982-94; author of column "The Online Writer," Content Spotlight, 1999-2001. Contributing editor, Editorial Eye, 2001-02.
SIDELIGHTS: Crawford Kilian mingles his teaching career with his writing career. He has written about the process of education in his adopted country, Canada, and has adapted several novels for radio broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He is perhaps best known, however, for his work as a science fiction and fantasy writer. His works range from an exploration of alternate histories on parallel Earths to a grim vision of a future in which the fate of individuals is controlled by multinational corporations. "As with any civilized pleasure, that of science fiction can turn into a vice," Kilian wrote in the St. James Guide to Science-Fiction Writers. "Its persistent theme is power: over nature, over others, over oneself. And that power is most often used not to enhance and expand the capabilities of its wielders but to win for them only a return to Eden, to some primitive and unspoiled state of life. Hence so many stories about Galactic Empires based on European models from Rome to the Raj, and the fondness for interstellar societies firmly founded on the technology and economy of ninth-century France."
Speaking to Paige Hess in an interview for the Rest Stop Writers' Newsletter, Kilian explained: "The Empire of Time was my first published novel, and it was really a kind of scrapbook of science fiction ideas, picked up in a dozen places: old James Bond novels, pop science books, and various time-travel tales. Selling it only made me want to write more—and in fact, I'd written and re-written another novel more or less at the same time, which came out about six months later. That was Icequake, whose financial success was much greater, and which ensured I'd keep plugging away at writing fiction."
Kilian's favorite of his novels, he revealed to Hess, is "Eyas (1982), about family life in British Columbia ten million years from now. I really did get the idea while walking the dog, and wrote my first couple of novels to teach myself the craft I knew I'd need. It was going to be a Tolkienesque science-fantasy; it turned into a domestic novel about a family gained, lost, and regained. Despite several re-issues, the novel never did very well—though it got some lovely reviews."
One of Kilian's best-known works is the novel Brother Jonathan, an exploration of a juvenile psyche caught in a moral dilemma. "Jonathan is an athetoid, a young cripple with little control over his ruined body," explained the St. James Guide to Science-Fiction Writers contributor George Kelley. "He is taken to the secret laboratories of Dr. Duane Perkin, whose medical team is working with spastics to restore their mobility through the use of new polydendronic computers that simulate nerve tissue." Jonathan's implant not only gives him control over his body, it also invests him with psionic powers. When the laboratory that funds Perkin's research is destroyed by a rival company, Jonathan and his fellow experiment subjects are forced to take refuge underground. "The rest of the book," Kelley stated, "explores the implications of these superhuman powers, the destruction of the corporate world government, and some satiric asides about juveniles and nationalism."
Critics largely celebrated Kilian's success in Brother Jonathan. Fantasy Review contributor W. D. Stephens noted that, although the novel has "a promising story line. . . it fails to live up to [its] promises." "Although a good story," opined Hal Hoover in Voice of Youth Advocates, who called the story "fascinating," "it also presents moral issues: medical experiments, corporate ethics, and classified societies." "Brother Jonathan is a challenging novel for young adult readers," declared Joanne Findon in Quill & Quire, "but Kilian makes this alien future world accessible. . . . [Any] teacher looking to engender discussion about the nature of power would find this a very useful book."
Lifter, Kilian's next novel, also looks at the empowerment of young adults. It is the story of a young man, Rick Stevenson, who suddenly discovers that he has developed the ability to fly. Kilian concentrates the story on the ways Stevenson uses his capabilities: to play tricks on his friends, to impress his girlfriend. "Romance, humor, football, UFO's, military spies, philosophy and the pangs of growing up," explained Muriel Becker in Fantasy Review, combine to form an entertaining novel. "Predictable and simple minded," a reviewer for Science Fiction Chronicle stated, but "also a lot of fun."
Kilian's interest in writing science fiction led him in 1998 to pen the instructional text Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, a book that Sally Laturi in Writer described as being "geared for beginning writers," because it "covers the process of writing a sci-fi or fantasy novel from start to finish." Kilian has also written books aimed at those who hope to write for business and the Internet: Writing for the Electronic Workplace and Writing for the Web. When writing for the Web, Kilian believes, a writer must keep his prose direct, concise, and short. He also gives tips on how to design a Web site to appeal to the reader who is surfing through and may leave quickly. Reviewing Writing for the Web on the Technical Editors' Eyrie Web site, Jean Weber deemed it to be "a useful addition to the bookshelf of inexperienced web writers and editors, anyone who teaches or trains writers, or anyone who consults or negotiates with clients or non-writer team members over the content of a website." According to Marc Anderson in the Writer, Writing for the Web is "a must-read for anyone thinking of plying their writing trade in cyberspace." Deanna Fay in Black Enterprise concluded: "If you're looking for no-nonsense advice, Kilian's book is like encouragement from a good friend."
Kilian once told CA: "I write fiction because it's fun, a grown-up form of 'Let's Pretend.' 'Serious fiction' to me is a contradiction in terms no matter how grim the subject matter or earnest the author. A novelist who thinks that writing a story will heal a social evil, or improve its readers, is self-deceiving. A better use of the time and effort would be to call the cops, or run for political office, or to write nonfiction.
"This issue began to clarify for me when I started planning a book about the black pioneers who came to British Columbia in the 1858 gold rush. It seemed at first like a great topic for a slam-bang historical epic, a black western. But the more I learned about the pioneers, the more clearly I saw that forcing their experience into a fictional straitjacket would demean and trivialize that experience. These were real people struggling to make a new life, not puppets pretending to live and die just to amuse someone for a few hours.
"My fiction has, of course, plenty of political and social comment explicit and implicit. People in the world around me are influenced by social pressures and political events; I could hardly tell a plausible lie about the twenty-first century if my characters weren't similarly influenced. Inevitably the concerns and anxieties of the moment turn up in my work: The Empire of Time is about a super CIA and was written in the early seventies when Chile and Watergate and Operation Chaos were in the news. Eyas is in a sense a novel of parental anxiety and hope, and was planned and written as my wife and I raised our two daughters. But my work reflects general experience rather than particular incident; autobiographical fiction bores and embarrasses me.
"Perhaps the most disastrous thing to happen to a writer in North America is to be able to make a living from writing. In India and Latin America writing is something done as a sideline by chemical engineers, civil servants, and businessmen—people very much involved in their world. Our writers scrape along on academic welfare schemes, or crank out formula work, or make some huge score in best-sellerdom. None of these fates is attractive, because all of them tend to exclude the writer from the surrounding community.
"Even worse, such fates rob the writer of much of the pleasure of writing. Judging by what our serious writers say, writing for them is torture, and life after hours isn't much fun either. The industrious hacks tend to write the same story over and over, changing the color of the heroine's eyes. The blockbuster novelists know they're only one book away from being has-beens.
"So an apprentice writer would be wise to stay away from graduate programs as well as Harlequin and Hollywood. Better to get married, settle down in a community, raise kids, and write exactly what you want to write, what you enjoy writing. If it sells, great. If it doesn't, so what? You and your spouse and the kids won't starve because you've got some kind of productive job. Better to be bored selling insurance than bored writing for money. If that happens, somebody will own your inner life and dictate your dreams. It won't be you."
Crawford Kilian contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
becoming a writer in just sixty years
I owe my life to Adolf Hitler and the U.S. State Department. And while writing is a notoriously solitary craft, I owe my career as a writer to a host of friends and mentors—and students.
My parents met in Los Angeles in the late 1930s at meetings of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. My mother, then Verne Debney, was a petite blonde knockout, active at UCLA in an organization called Veterans of Future Wars. My father, Victor William Cosgrove Kilian ("Mike" to everyone, including his sons), had tried to get to Spain to join the International Brigades, foreigners fighting in support of the elected Loyalist government. But the State Department had picked up the guy who was supposed to get Mike overseas, so he was stuck in Los Angeles, dropping anti-Nazi leaflets from airplanes on picnics held by the German-American Bund. Had Mike actually reached Spain, he would likely have been killed. He certainly wouldn't have met and married Verne, and I wouldn't be here to tell you about it.
My parents were what the FBI later called "premature anti-fascists," and they paid a high price for their membership in the Communist Party: FBI harassment, blacklisting, and general stress, which helped break up their marriage. But their politics also shaped me as a writer.
Mike came from a family of German radicals and Yankee revolutionaries. On his father's side he was descended from a line of socialists; his grandfather Heinrich Kilian had immigrated to the United States in 1888 and was soon working with Eugene Debs in the American Socialist Party. On his mother Daisy's side he was descended from William Williams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Jonathan Trumbull, George Washington's quartermaster general and the antecedent (as "Brother Jonathan") of Uncle Sam. He was intensely proud of both lineages.
Verne's family was much less political. Her father, Fred Debney, was an immigrant from Danzig, a tinsmith; Veronica, her mother, a peasant girl from Slovakia. Fred and Veronica had met in Milwaukee, and sometime soon after World War I they had driven out to Los Angeles where Fred had built a house in East Hollywood. Verne's brother Lou had gone to work for Walt Disney as an animator; Verne had gone to UCLA and become a teacher—the first and only university graduate in the family until me.
Mike's father, Victor Sr., was an actor who had appeared in many of Eugene O'Neill's original productions as well as routine Broadway plays. After Vic and Daisy's marriage ended in the early 1930s, Mike chose to stay with his father. He had experienced a bohemian childhood. Daisy had kept him out of school until fifth grade because she couldn't find a school good enough for him, and he left school after tenth grade. But he had also grown up surrounded by intelligent, articulate people: artists, writers, actors. The family alternated between apartments in Manhattan and a cabin in Free Acres, New Jersey, an odd little community that attracted unusual people. Invariably the house was full of visitors or relatives, and invariably everyone talked. So Mike picked up a lot just by listening. I was to be named after one of his Free Acres mentors, an artist named Will Crawford.
In the early 1930s Mike, at age sixteen, worked as a radio operator on a tramp steamer to Scandinavia. Almost as soon as he was back, he and Vic returned to Europe as members of the cast of a Broadway play headed for London. And soon after that, Mike and Vic landed in Hollywood, where Vic was to work in well over a hundred movies. (Mike did some bit parts too, where his height and dark good looks got him cast as "young heavies"—cops and doctors.)
Political activism, however, was my father's real occupation in the late 1930s. Hence his activities with the Anti-Nazi League. He also helped drive a convoy of ambulances across the United States, raising money for the Spanish Loyalists, and then chauffeured Dr. Norman Bethune around New England; the Canadian doctor had just returned from Spain and was fundraising for the Loyalists also, before leaving for China to work with Mao's Eighth Route Army.
Mike and Verne were married on September 16, 1939, just two weeks after the start of World War II. It was not an auspicious time, but they managed. The marriage had to be kept secret at first, because Verne was teaching and in those days a married female teacher would be fired—better to give the job to an unmarried woman or to a married man. Before long they moved to New York, where I was born on February 7, 1941.
Sometime late in the summer of 1941 the family moved back to Los Angeles, where Mike passed the tests for air traffic controller with the highest grades ever recorded. He was to work at Burbank Airport through most of the war, when it was the busiest airfield in the world. In 1944 he left the job and tried to join the armed forces—but, by then the father of two children, he was rejected. He settled for a job as radio operator in the Merchant Marine, perhaps the most hazardous job in the service that suffered the most casualties during the war.
Some of my earliest memories are of Mike in his uniform. I can recall being in the back seat of our Packard late at night while my parents necked in the
front; we were at a dock somewhere and he was about to leave for sea. And I recall his return from one voyage, and my pride that I was now tall enough for my head to reach his belt buckle.
Even for toddlers in a Los Angeles suburb, the war was a presence: searchlights swept the skies during air-raid alerts, shopping at the supermarket required ration stamps, and on one April day in 1945 I asked Verne why she was crying: "President Roosevelt just died."
That summer, when I was four years old, I walked my little brother Lincoln (age three) to the corner of our block on Burbank Boulevard in North Hollywood. We could hear car horns blaring in the distance, and I began to spin a story about the reason: a tree had fallen across the road, a car had hit it, and its horn had stuck. Then Mrs. Hunt, who lived in the house on the corner, called out from the door: "Hey, kids! Did you hear the war is over?"
We ran back home and somehow heard that a huge celebration was going on down in Hollywood. We badgered Verne into taking us, and I still have a fragmentary memory of noise and crowds on Hollywood Boulevard as our car crawled through traffic.
Life in postwar Los Angeles now looks almost idyllic. The neighborhood was full of kids. We had a nice house with a big back yard for playing in, and an undeveloped park on the banks of a dry wash just a few houses down the street. (When I revisited the neighborhood in 1977, the pepper trees on Burbank Boulevard had vanished and the dry wash was now a freeway.)
Verne taught in our school when I was still in first and second grade; she left to have a third son, Starr, in 1948. Thereafter, we walked the half-mile to school, unescorted. Sometimes on weekends we'd stay with Verne's parents, and then take the streetcar all the way home . . . again unescorted. The dangerous, hardboiled Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler was somewhere else.
It wasn't all idyllic, of course. There were frequent quarrels between Mike and Verne, frictions with Verne's father (who had mysteriously converted early in the war from left-winger to Nazi sympathizer), and illness. In the fall of 1948 I came down with polio, and spent a week or so in hospital. It was a light case, and after a couple of months' recuperation I was back in school. For a year or so I also had back massages, and suffered no long-term consequences from a disease that now seems as ancient as the Black Death.
The tradition of endless conversation continued, rich with family stories, explanations of science, and history. We liked to speculate on when the first men would reach the moon and whether a human could be cloned. Talk and reading dominated the household, even though we had one of the first TV sets in the neighborhood (Mike had become a TV engineer after the war). On some evenings all the neighbors would come in to watch Hopalong Cassidy; Kukla, Fran, and Ollie; or Shirley Dinsdale and Judy Splinters, a ventriloquism act. Before long we were also watching baseball games, televised live by a remote crew led by Mike. Despite the TV, reading was the preferred entertainment for Linc and me, and our parents ensured we had lots of books to read—Paul Bunyan, American history, Booth Tarkington's "Penrod" stories, Tom Sawyer. I loved trips to the library.
Verne, a determined bargain hunter, took us into all kinds of secondhand stores. Their stock often included shelves of old pulp magazines—especially science fiction. I could usually get her to buy me two or three (at ten or fifteen cents each, they were a bargain compared to ten-cent comic books). So my shelves at home filled up with Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder, Planet, and Astounding Stories. I loved them, and got an undeserved classroom reputation as a brain because I'd picked up scraps of astronomy and physics from them. And writers now forgotten were major figures in my education: Edmond Hamilton, Sam Merwin, Henry Kuttner—not to mention the big names like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury.
One reason for my love of SF was that it was literally escapist, and I needed some escape because Mike and Verne's marriage was not a happy one. So I could disappear into interplanetary space for a while, until things calmed down. Linc, when he got a year or two older, took refuge in the past, becoming a Civil War buff owning dozens of books about it.
Television brought us the news of the invasion of South Korea in June 1950, and it was around this time that our parents told us we were moving to New York, where Mike would have a job in another TV station. The house was soon sold, and we got a new Ford station wagon. Our possessions went into a trailer, we said good-bye to our classmates, and left Los Angeles in October.
Not until we were nearly in El Paso did our parents suggest we might want to visit Mexico on our way to New York. Eventually I realized that the "New York job" had been a cover story. Expecting a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee, Mike had found a job with a Mexican TV station. So just before Halloween we rolled into Mexico City, and after a few days in a hotel we settled into a new home in an apartment building in Colonia Nueva Anzures, on Calle Lafayette just around the corner from Calle Shakespeare (pronounced "shock ess pay AW ray").
I haven't seen Mexico City in almost half a century, but I recall it as a mostly beautiful place of clear skies, exciting summer thunderstorms, and very nice people. Linc and I picked up Spanish quickly, at least enough to get around with, and while we were a visible minority we rarely had any trouble with other kids. We never thought twice about hopping a bus or streetcar across town to school or a friend's house or a movie—and this when we were aged ten and nine.
Our first school was a brand-new British-run private school, Greengates. It exposed me to a very different kind of teacher from the ones I'd known in North Hollywood: these were young expatriates from England, Gibraltar, and South Africa. (In the second year, Verne taught there also, in exchange for free tuition for Linc and me.) The students were a mix of Brits, Mexicans, and Americans. The school was a converted old house of some size, but with no yard; sports had to wait for twice-weekly trips to a run-down country club, where we learned soccer and played baseball with a cricket bat.
This was a much more intensive education than I'd ever had before: English, French, Spanish, and Latin, plus literature, history, and math. At one point I was pretty good at converting pounds and pence into shillings and half-crowns. More importantly, I was reading very widely, everything from English verse to boys' stories like Biggles in Spain, plus Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. And we'd discovered that in the Thieves' Market downtown we could buy not only six-shooters and cavalry sabers, but piles of old American magazines—especially the pulp SF that I'd acquired a taste for in those LA secondhand shops.
At some point in the year and a half I was at Greengates, I stood up in front of my class and told a story. It wasn't much, just an improvisation, and I confess I ended it with ". . . and then I woke up," but the class liked it. And I had liked telling it.
Not long after, Verne got a job at the American School: not only free tuition for us, but an actual salary as well. We moved to a nice house right across the street from the walled campus of the school, but our neighborhood was a slum of tar-paper shanties and open drains. As we walked to the school gate every morning, limousines from the Lomas and other rich districts rolled past us to deliver our classmates.
The move to the American School brought us into contact with the Butler and Trumbo families, who had arrived in Mexico City a few months after we had. Like us, they were there to try to make a living despite the blacklist. Hugo and Jean Butler and Dalton Trumbo were Hollywood writers who could no longer get work under their own names. But in Mexico they could live well while writing scripts and selling them (at bargain rates) under false names to American film producers. Occasionally they could also sell to a local producer-director like Luis Buñuel.
I met Michael Butler in my first day at the American School in July 1952, and soon knew Chris Trumbo as well. That led to renewed contact between our parents, who'd known each other in the Party during the war. (Verne and Cleo Trumbo, Chris's mother, had even known each other in high school.) We were now in a little community of exiles—writers, artists, business people—who seemed to meet every Saturday morning at the Butlers' for a game of softball in the empty lot next door. After the game, everyone sat down to a big lunch where the adults talked politics and gossiped, and the kids listened or gossiped among themselves.
Sometime in late 1952 or early 1953, I began writing stories. First they were in pencil, with illustrations; soon, though, I was pecking them out on Verne's portable typewriter. They were space operas, mostly, or stories about mutants with superhuman powers, or people revived after being frozen for thousands of years. Not an original idea in the batch, but my parents and teachers (and friends) were greatly impressed and urged me to keep writing. So I did.
It helped that my friends' parents were working writers. For many novices, writing is something done by mysterious beings, probably mutants with superhuman powers. I knew writing was done by ordinary people who (even blacklisted) made pretty decent livings from it. So I kept at it, and within a few months had even written a couple of SF novelettes of eighty pages or so. Dalton Trumbo read one of them and offered me a dollar for it, which I foolishly spurned; a year or two later I burned the manuscript, compounding my foolishness. When I look at the stories that survive from my first years, I'm struck (and appalled) by how little my basic writing style has changed. The pulp authors must have been powerful models.
I suspect I imagined that writing would give me entry to some kind of society of like-minded people. The blacklisted screenwriters and their families were tightly linked by profession, by predicament, and by friendship. The other exiles were less united, and my own family was stressed and fragmented by my parents' quarrels. The Mexicans regarded us as foreigners, as of course we were—just another batch of political exiles, like the Spaniards from the doomed Republic and the ex-Nazi and his family who'd lived downstairs from us in one apartment building. Much as we loved and enjoyed Mexico, we knew it wasn't really our world. Neither was the Cold War U.S.A. In college, writing a story about those years, I invented a term to describe our situation: "discultured," not really belonging anywhere.
But somewhere out there was a world of published writers, loved by their readers and respected by their colleagues and editors. Even at age twelve or thirteen, I had some hazy sense of the American writers of the 1920s—Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Hemingway—who had not only been friends and rivals, but who had created a magical world of their own.
In my case, however, I didn't imagine myself partying in the south of France or dodging bulls in Pamplona; I imagined going to the science-fiction conventions I read about in Startling Stories and Astounding Science Fiction. I vividly recall reading about the SF author L. Sprague de Camp at one such convention, sporting "tendrils" on his head like those of the people on his fictional planet Krishna. Loving de Camp's humor and erudition, I longed to see him, tendrils and all. Many years later we did meet, at a convention in Calgary, where he had no tendrils but was a wonderfully attractive, articulate, and likable octogenarian. Alas, most of the conventions I have attended were far less interesting than those I'd imagined in the early 1950s.
Somehow, then, writing was going to bring me in from the isolation of the blacklist, and perhaps help make the larger society a more humane one (propaganda in good causes being a hallmark of "progressive" literature). That didn't happen. Instead I was to rusticate in a suburb of a Canadian city, grading papers and occasionally publishing a novel or nonfiction book. Even more occasionally, someone would write or phone or e-mail to say they'd liked something of mine. And that was about it. I would certainly have a lively social and political life, but it would include almost no writers except for a few of my students.
By the age of fourteen or fifteen, I was the author of several novelettes and many short stories. Thereafter,
except for some bad years in college, I would always be working on some kind of writing project. This not only got me some attention and encouragement, but also insulated me a bit from the pain of my parents' breakup. They had separated in 1952. Some months after that, the TV station fired Mike; he had trained everyone and was therefore no longer needed. Mike had to return to the United States for work, but the FBI kept chasing him out of jobs; he ended up working in a Tijuana TV station, but when he returned to Mexico City to get his passport renewed at the U.S. embassy, it was taken from him. He now had no choice but to return to the United States and stay there.
Just before Christmas 1954, Verne brought us back to Los Angeles also. It was too hard to live on her small salary in Mexico, and she seized the chance to teach in a school in Malibu. We settled in Santa Monica in a beachfront apartment. This was a blessing because we were upwind of the horrendous Los Angeles smog, which Mexico City in those days had none of.
Reentry brought "disculture" shock: classes reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, teachers conducting impromptu atomic-bomb drills, and air-raid sirens going off on the last Friday of every month. I had a strong sense that this was a dangerous country—not only because of my parents' unpopular politics, but because it might be blown up at any moment. Those who have grown up since the late 1980s have little understanding of the pervasive anxieties of the Cold War—especially for unpopular radicals and their kids. We knew that one false step, one tactless remark, might mean the loss of Verne's job, or a visit from the FBI, or a beating from patriotic louts.
The other kids in junior high were shocked that I said "sir" and "ma'am" to the teachers, and it didn't help that I spoke pretty good Spanish. Still, I got used to life in a strange world where fighter planes' sonic booms bulged the panes in the classroom windows, tar blobs floated in onto the beach, and no one knew (or cared) anything about Mexico.
Life got better in high school, where I soon met a number of bright nonconformists. We had gravitated to a writing club, the Penpushers, and before long were swapping stories and poems, falling in and out of love, and generally behaving like any other clique. It was around this time, 1956, that I read the first volume of The Lord of the Rings; it was just out, little known to anyone outside the small world of sciencefiction and fantasy lovers. I'd read stories about mythical worlds before (and even created a couple), but this was of course extraordinary. I happily set to work on a plagiarism of it, a novelette titled "The Year of the Bat," in which my friends and I played major roles under thinly disguised names.
I wrote the novelette on an Optima portable typewriter, a Christmas present from Mike. By the standards of today's laptops, it was a bulky, heavy object, but I loved it. On the back it said: "Made in Germany," with a stamped addendum: "Soviet Occupied." My communist typewriter was sometimes hard to get serviced in those Cold War years, but it was a rugged and durable machine that I was to use for a quarter-century. I still have it.
The high school years were punctuated with two summer trips to Mexico, in the second of which I stayed with the Butler family. Jean Butler actually sat down and read "The Year of the Bat" and commended it. That judgment probably set me permanently on my course as a writer.
Meanwhile, Mike had formed a partnership with Pauline Sopkin, a blacklisted ex-radio writer. Together, under false names, they broke into TV writing; between Pauline's skills with a script, and Mike's knowledge of the technical end of TV, they formed a good team. It was a golden age of TV drama, and for several years they did quite well; Loretta Young was an especially good market. Mike and Pauline won a few awards—notably for a script about the pornography industry and its effect on teenagers wanting to learn about sex. During the times when Linc and I lived with Mike and Pauline, I was again immersed in a household where writing was just the way people made a living. To outsiders, though, it must have seemed a very dysfunctional household: Mike and Pauline worked in their bedroom-office, Pauline at the typewriter and Mike in his easy chair, with each shouting lines of dialogue to the other. To people in the front of the house, it sounded like a raging quarrel.
My own writing in high school consisted mostly of SF and fantasy stories, with one novelette of teen angst—the result of being too impressed with the James Dean movie Rebel without a Cause. None of it was really publishable, though one short story nearly saw print in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. But they wanted first world publication, and I naively told them the story had appeared in the Penpushers' little student magazine.
After I'd done well on some standardized test in twelfth grade, Mike suggested I apply to Columbia as well as to the obvious local schools like UCLA. He wanted me to experience New York, so I obligingly sent off the application. To my astonishment, they not only accepted me but also offered a meal job and a scholarship.
The rest of that senior year whirled by, and after graduation I flew back to New York with Mike and Linc—courtesy of Vic, who was succeeding on Broadway again after six or seven years on the Hollywood blacklist. (Vic had been subpoenaed in 1951, gone to Washington, and been promptly labeled an "unfriendly witness." He didn't work again in Hollywood until the 1970s.) So we saw him in Look Homeward, Angel, enjoyed a number of other Broadway plays, and had a pretty good time.
I also met Stanley Ellin, a notable mystery writer, his wife Jean, and their daughter Susan, with whom I'd been corresponding for a couple of years. Jean and Verne had been pen pals since taking the same maternity class back in 1940, and somehow I'd starting writing to Susan. Her father was another writer-mentor; he gave me serious criticism that made his praise all the more valuable, and it was he who'd passed along one of my stories to Ellery Queen's. I greatly enjoyed the times I spent with the Ellins on Clarkson Street in Brooklyn.
Mike and Linc flew home and I stayed in New York. Vic found me a non-paying job as an apprentice in a summer-stock company in Woodstock, New York. (This was a decade before Woodstock became the symbol of a generation.) I spent the summer building sets and doing bit parts in a different play every week. It was fun, but it cured me of any desire to follow in the family profession.
Columbia in the fall of 1958 was enhanced by the presence of my old Mexico friends Michael Butler and Chris Trumbo, who had also been admitted. We soon made more friends, and dedicated ourselves to playing poker and hanging out in the West End Bar and Grill.
I wasn't a very good student. Only seventeen when I arrived on campus, I could have used a couple of years in the army just to grow up. So while I did all right, and often enjoyed my courses, I didn't get as much out of the experience as I might have with a little more maturity. It was great to take courses from the likes of Lionel Trilling, F. W. Dupee, and Eric Bentley (not to mention the honor of being flunked in physics by Leon Lederman, who would later win a Nobel Prize).
But my favorite teacher at Columbia was an old ex-sportswriter named George Nobbe, who gave a course in writing short stories. He would sit at the end of the seminar table, beaming at the dozen of us callow youths and resembling Dr. Samuel Johnson minus the wig. Each week he'd assign a topic for next week's story, which we'd read to our classmates. The criticism, from both him and the class, was wonderful—and it taught me a lot about how to teach the writing of fiction. It was in that class that I wrote the Mexico story about disculturation. It was the first time, but not the last, that my own writing taught me something.
But that was almost all the fiction writing I did in four years. I worked on the Columbia Review, our undergraduate literary magazine, and published a couple of minor items there, but made no real progress as a writer. My courses trained me to be a critic, not a writer, so I was too quick to judge and condemn my own work. During one dull Christmas break, a friend and I wrote 20,000 words of a war novel, but we never finished it. Classes resumed and we were back writing essays on De Quincey and Brecht.
In some ways, my real Columbia education took place in the West End and a coffee shop on Broadway called Riker's. I hung out in those places with my friends, gossiping about the profs, preparing for exams, and debating politics. And I learned as much from those conversations as I had as a little kid back in North Hollywood.
I was still in the blacklist community as well. Through Chris and Michael, I got to know Ring Lardner, Jr., and his family. Ring had been one of the Hollywood Ten along with Dalton Trumbo; he and his family now lived in an apartment on West End Avenue, where we often visited. I still recall the wall of bookshelves in the living room—and, on the bottom shelf, an Oscar statuette serving as a bookend. Occasionally Dalton Trumbo or Hugo Butler would swing through town and take us out to dinner, renewing the old ties to Mexico while bringing us up to date on the movie business. I still remember the delight I felt when a story in the New York Times reported that Trumbo was the author of the screenplay for Kirk Douglas's epic Spartacus. Trumbo had already won an Oscar in the 1950s under a phony name, thereby embarrassing the industry; this only enhanced his glory.
Despite these connections, I wasn't active politically; Columbia in those days was notorious for its political apathy. Many years later I was to see my FBI file, which reported that I was unknown to the FBI informants in the New York Communist Party. That was almost all I learned from the file; most of it had been blacked out to protect the FBI sources' privacy. I sometimes wonder whom the FBI spoke to, and what they learned that had been worth putting into the file. Not until I was back in Los Angeles for good in the fall of 1962 did I start trying to write again. Mike and Pauline wanted me to get a start as a writer, and supported me for a year. This enabled me to write a large chunk of an autobiographical novel about Columbia. Like the Christmas-break war novel, it was written very quickly, and very badly. A college friend read it and wrote a long, accurate, and devastating critique. It would be a long time before I tried autobiographical fiction again.
The missile crisis of October 1962 gave us a few bad days. As everyone waited to see if war would erupt between us and the Soviets, the Los Angeles civil defense office urged everyone to have two weeks' supply of food on hand. Next day Pauline went up to Ralph's supermarket on Sunset Boulevard to get a bag of birdseed, and found pandemonium as our neighbors tried to push multiple cartloads of groceries through the checkout stands. When the crisis was over, most people tried to return their emergency supplies. That was the funny part. The less-funny part was the announcement on TV that if war did break out, the FBI would promptly throw all subversives into camps already set up for the purpose.
With the missile crisis over, life settled back to normal. I spent my non-writing time hanging out with friends, dating girls, talking politics (and writing) with my parents, and getting involved with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi seemed to me to demand some kind of action, so I joined CORE and attended a few meetings in the summer of 1963. I even went on a march through South Central LA, where the Watts riots would rage in a couple of years. But my political engagement was brief; I knew the draft would get me eventually, so I volunteered for it. Sometime in September I received my induction notice (and since I'd registered in New York, the notice came with a New York subway token taped to it). Late in October 1963 I was sworn in and took a train to Fort Ord, near Monterey.
My hitch was what we called "good duty." Basic training was about fighting Korea again and doing it right this time. It was still a peacetime army, and didn't especially care about my political background as long as I didn't need a security clearance. After basic, I was assigned to HQ Company right at Ord, where my self-taught typing got me a job cutting orders. My comrades in arms were mostly young paper-pushers who'd done some business courses or worked as management trainees. No one was eager to show how tough he was.
Off duty, I could hang out in Monterey, or catch a bus to Berkeley, or do an overnight on the Greyhound to LA and spend a weekend at home. I could discuss the growing threat of Vietnam with my parents, but until 1965 it was not a major issue. In '64 you had to work hard to get to Vietnam, and you were far more likely to end up in Germany or Korea. The army fed us some stupid propaganda movies about what a great job we were doing with counter insurgency in general and Vietnam in particular. No one gave a noticeable damn. The guys who volunteered for Vietnam were just looking for rapid promotion and some overseas pay.
For a long stretch I was on night shift, which meant I could sleep late, spend the day doing what I liked, show up for work at 4:30, and knock off when everyone's orders had been typed up. When my fellow typists left for the night, I would stay late, using my electric typewriter to work on my first novel. The Winter after the War was an SF war novel about a chunk of central California being run by the army after a brief nuclear/bacteriological World War III.
It was pretty bad, but at least I'd proved that I could write a book-length story. I sent it to just one publisher, who wrote back rejecting it very kindly. After that, it sat on my shelf for decades until I donated it, with a lot of other manuscripts, to the Special Collections of the library at the University of British Columbia.
I'd never had any illusions that I could make a living from my writing alone. That was possible for the Butlers and Trumbos, perhaps, and Mike and Pauline had done so for a while, but by the mid-'60s they were scrambling to find work in a market that just wanted scripts where bodies fell out of closets. I certainly didn't expect to get rich writing screenplays, which didn't interest me at all. So I applied to San Francisco State's teacher-training program, thinking that a high school teaching career would be fun while giving me time to write on the side.
The army gave me an early release to enroll at SF State, and I quickly found an apartment in Berkeley with a congenial roommate—a Japanese guy named
Allen Say who was a brilliant artist and photographer. He wanted to illustrate children's books, so in the fall of 1965 I put together a story, Wonders, Inc., about a factory that built abstractions: a line assembly that built hairlines and timberlines, a space mill that cranked out closet space and elbow room. But I was mostly concerned with education courses that bored me silly.
One of my classmates, however, was a good-looking young woman named Alice Fairfax. I started dating her, and before long Allen was dating her roommate. One thing led to another, and before I knew it I was out of the teacher-training program and working in the library of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory up on the hill above Berkeley. Alice and I were living together in a little duplex on the north side of Berkeley, and a few months later we were married.
The library job wasn't very challenging (I'd replaced an eighteen-year-old going into the navy), and I was on the verge of quitting. Then Parnassus Press, a small children's publisher in Berkeley, said they wanted to publish Wonders, Inc., which I'd submitted to them months before. (They didn't want Allen Say's illustrations, but he went on to write and illustrate his own superb children's books—and to win a Caldecott for one of them.)
The news of my impending publication somehow got me promoted into the Technical Information Division, where I became an apprentice tech writer/editor. My weak background in science was a disadvantage, but I could translate technical writing into reasonably clear English. So I adapted a lot of reports into terms understandable to our "ideal" reader: a first-term congressman on the House Atomic Energy Committee.
I also learned that Cold War politics were alive and well at the Rad Lab. Its founder, Ernest O. Lawrence, had been a major force in the building of the first atomic bombs. Lawrence had died in 1958, but his spirit still ruled the place: When I found a photo of Robert Oppenheimer attending a Lab conference, I included it in the draft of an annual report. Oppenheimer had since died, and I thought it would make a quiet tribute to a great scientist. But Lawrence had fallen out with Oppenheimer during the hearings that cost Oppenheimer his security clearance. The photo disappeared from the final report.
Meanwhile, Alice had acquired her teaching credential and landed a job teaching in Richmond, just north of Berkeley. We moved into a bigger place, got a dog, and seemed to be settling into young-married life with a circle of friends and colleagues.
But Vietnam now hung over us all. We went on marches, snarled about LBJ, and read Ramparts Magazine—including an anti war article by a Special Forces sergeant I'd been greatly impressed by at Fort Ord. One afternoon my brother Starr phoned from UC Santa Cruz, where he and his buddies had decided they should move to Canada before the war got any worse. Would I please call the Canadian consulate in San Francisco and get the information on how to emigrate? I did, but my brother never left; Alice and I did.
We realized we were doing well in jobs we didn't enjoy all that much, and feeling politically and culturally out of step. Berkeley in the mid-'60s was very hip, and if you went to the anti war demos in San Francisco, you saw thousands of people equally opposed to the war. But we decided it was time for a change. One evening, as we listened to the news of yet more B-52s bombing Vietnam, Alice said: "Why don't we go to Canada?"
And why not? We'd both lived out of the country before. We had nothing tying us down. My middle brother Linc had spent some time in British Columbia and thought we'd do fine. Like most Americans, we knew almost nothing about Canada except that draft dodgers and deserters were beginning to go there (a step that had been literally unthinkable when I was drafted in 1963). So with very little hassle we wrapped up our jobs, got our immigration papers, and shipped our few belongings to Vancouver. We drove up from Berkeley in three or four days, arriving at the border on August 2, 1967. Less than a week later we had a little house in North Vancouver and were looking for work.
In some ways Canada was more exotic than Mexico. It was a kind of parallel world, one in which the American Revolution hadn't been fought. British cars filled the streets: Cambridges, Austins, Rovers. People paved their driveways with "ashfault" and the post office trucks said "Royal Mail" above the Queen's coat of arms. Most of the other immigrants were Brits or Germans or Dutch. You could buy canned goods from Red China in any grocery store: I felt as if I were trading with the enemy.
By dumb luck, I stumbled into a job at Vancouver Community College and discovered I loved teaching. After a year I moved to a new college, Capilano, and also began taking courses towards a master's degree. I wanted to stay in teaching, so an M.A. was essential. And with some maturity and a clear purpose to my studies, I enjoyed my courses far more than I had at Columbia.
For one course I had to read Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, which I'd never heard of at Columbia. Maybe I wouldn't have responded to it as a callow youth, but now it had the effect reported by many of Frye's students at the University of Toronto: it felt like the top of my head was coming off. Frye made literature make sense. He traced the connections, the conventions, the symbols. Every story or poem or essay was a contribution to an ongoing, centuries-long conversation. As a writer you might be ignorant of most of what had been said before (I certainly was), but your work would be a lot better if you did know, and if you therefore framed your own comments as a response—not just as an imitation. Literature itself is a society in conversation, in which the dead still speak to the living.
I was to correspond occasionally with Frye, and I sent him some of my books—especially Icequake, in which a nuclear-reactor engineer, "Herman Northrop," is described as keeping the whole operation going. He took it as I hoped he would, as an affectionate joke. His death in 1991 felt like losing a father.
I'd started writing SF and fantasy because I liked the stories in those genres. Now I began to understand how those genres had arisen, what they'd borrowed from, why they relied on some conventions and not on others. I could apply Frye's ideas to the books I was studying—especially to a Canadian classic, A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, by the nineteenth-century writer James de Mille. And I could begin to apply them to my own work as well—not just as a literary critic finding fault with amateurishness, but as an apprentice craftsman finally learning how to use his tools.
By the time I finally received my M.A., I was thirty-one and now truly settled: my job was secure, Alice and I had a daughter, and we'd even bought a house. While working on my M.A. thesis, I'd developed a routine in which a good block of time was available for writing. So with the thesis done, I began to explore some possibilities.
Radio drama was the unlikely first choice. A friend working for the CBC gave me a wildly inflated idea of how much the CBC would pay for a script, but by the time I found out, I'd sold one and was on the way to selling more. That first script was an adaptation of A Strange Manuscript, and it worked quite well as a tongue-in-cheek radio fantasy. Success also triggered a lot more ideas. Five more scripts followed in the next few years, including some originals as well as adaptations. My master's thesis had been on early Canadian novels of World War I, and one radio play was based on Generals Die in Bed, a tough and brilliant portrait of trench warfare. I was to return to World War I almost thirty years later in my novel Deserters.
In the early 1970s I'd also written a kind of social studies text in the form of a story about the last Vikings in Greenland. Looking around for similar topics, I'd discovered accounts of the black pioneers who came to British Columbia in the 1858 gold rush, and I wrote—on spec—a history of them. (As with the CBC scripts, I plunged into this project with a mistakenly optimistic idea of how much money it might make.) A small Vancouver publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, brought it out in 1978, and it did very well. The reviews were excellent and sales were good; the book is still in print. I was beginning to feel I had a career, not just a couple of lucky breaks.
Around this time I began to think about Eyas, a story set in Canada ten million years in the future. It would be a big, sprawling story, and I knew I was nowhere near capable of tackling it yet. But some other projects would, I hoped, teach me enough about the craft of fiction to let me gamble on Eyas.
In the late 1960s I'd tried another SF novel, The Empire of Time, but after ninety pages had run into serious outline trouble. Now I dug it out and saw both its problems and their solutions. But after just a few months' work on Empire, another idea occurred to me and I instantly started Icequake. Once finished, Icequake made the rounds of some New York publishers but didn't find a home. Neither did Empire of Time.
I showed them to Scott McIntyre of Douglas & McIntyre. He saw some potential in Icequake, and I heavily revised it. Meanwhile, less drastic revisions made Empire of Time salable to Del Rey Books. Encouraged by these successes, I got into Eyas in the summer of 1977 and saw it develop as I'd hoped it would.
By the summer of 1979 I was not just published, I was making some surprising money. Icequake had sold to Futura, a British house, for 5,000 pounds; Bantam Books bought the North American paperback rights for $20,000, with another $20,000 for a sequel, Tsunami. And Bantam then offered $15,000 for Eyas, which I'd recently finished.
All these books had strong social and political elements. Empire of Time drew on the CIA scandals of the 1950s and '60s (and my desire to satirize the James Bond novels, which had been a guilty pleasure in college). It was also an attempt to respond to my brother Linc's withering comment: "All your heroes are so cool." My time-traveling hit man, Jerry Pierce, was a jerk. Icequake and Tsunami envisaged a right-wing, isolationist America in which the choice is between surviving as individuals or as members of a group. Eyas was about empire and oppression, and the power of the weak when they unite against the strong. These themes continued through all my novels, but I hope I avoided preachiness. I certainly sympathized with my villains, who were just trying to do what seemed right to them; they just didn't know, or care, how their use of power was hurting people.
But the success was mixed with family grief. In 1979 Vic was assaulted and killed by someone who broke into his Hollywood apartment intent on theft. At eighty-seven he was still a working actor, though very frail. The insurance enabled Mike and Pauline to get out of Los Angeles and buy a house in Vermont, where Pauline's older daughter had settled. But soon after they moved, Mike was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He fought it with amazing courage and good cheer, and died, in February 1981, with most of his family around him. He was only sixty-four, and I wish he had lived to see the rest of the century. He would have been appalled by the Reagan and Bush years, but he'd have loved fighting them—and using the Internet to do so. A lifelong ham radio operator, he would have taken to e-mail and the Web with huge interest and enjoyment.
In my less dramatic way, I was following in Mike's activist footsteps. I'd joined the New Democratic Party in 1972 when it won the BC provincial election, and spent years as a constituency-association foot soldier. In 1980 I ran for our local school board and won. It was a great experience to see how a school district operates, and I learned a lot. But BC was slipping into a recession, and one result of that was a sharp polarization between right and left. The right was all for cutting school spending and going back to some mythical Golden Age of low-paid teachers and obedient students. The left was trying to hang on to the gains made for teachers and students in the 1960s and '70s. When I ran for re-election in 1982, I was soundly whipped.
It may have been the single best thing that ever happened to my writing career. Like any other discredited politician, I went to the media. I'd already published a few items in the Vancouver Province newspaper, and now I approached them with a proposal for a weekly education column. They took me on, and the job was to last until 1994—well over five hundred columns. This was a wonderful experience that took me all over western Canada and led to a 1985 book, School Wars. A decade later I wrote another column-based book, 2020 Visions: The Futures of Canadian Education. The column eventually changed into a more general one, enabling me to write about science, politics, the environment—whatever took my interest.
The column went into suspension in 1983, when Alice and I took our two daughters (then aged twelve and eight) to southern China. We spent five months at the Guangzhou Institute of Foreign Languages (now the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies) teaching English and experiencing a hell of a case of culture shock—not least when we took the hovercraft down the Pearl River to Hong Kong, which was like time-traveling between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries.
But we made good friends and gained new perspectives not only on China but also on our own country. We loved the students, hated the waiban (foreign office) that looked after us, and saw just how grubby and forlorn a communist society could be—even one rapidly converting to "capitalism with Chinese characteristics." I gained high status from the students when I told them how my father had driven Norman Bethune—a huge hero in China—around New England in the late 1930s, raising money for the Spanish Loyalists. My status with the institute administration was less good (I was a complainer), and our students were advised not to correspond with us after we returned home. Some did anyway, however, and I managed to get Capilano College to send the institute surplus textbooks every year until Tiananmen Square.
On our return in early 1984 I tried to write a political thriller about a violent change of government after the death of Deng Xiaoping, but after sixty pages I realized how little I'd really learned about China, and went back to science fiction and my education column.
During the mid-1980s I also wrote a social studies textbook about BC history, and a textbook on workplace writing that eventually became the commercially published Communications Book. It had started as a collection of handouts, and gradually grew into a full-length book. My colleagues and I revised it every couple of years, adding new material and dropping whatever no longer worked.
That was the most obvious link between teaching and writing, but not the only one. In many cases, my classes gave me ideas for writing, and the writing in turn became course material. Around 1980, I started teaching a course in freelance article writing, though I hadn't done many such articles. But to enhance my own credibility as a teacher, I did more freelancing, and sold most of what I wrote. These articles led in turn to the education column, and to other articles; I could draw on that experience in teaching my students. I also created and taught a course in "Marketing Commercial Fiction" (we had to call it marketing because the English department thought writing, as such, was their turf). This course required me to think in a more organized fashion about the craft of fiction, which I applied to my own work even while I taught it to my students.
In both courses I included an element as much for my own needs as for my students': every class would start with a "progress report" in which each of us had to describe what we'd written since the previous class. This was surprisingly effective at prodding everyone (including me) into putting something down on paper: a query letter, a couple of pages of a draft article, a few pages on the current novel-in-progress.
I had an ulterior motive in teaching these courses, though at first I didn't understand it myself. I was trying to find talented students and give them a boost and a direction, just as the Butlers and Trumbos and Ellins had helped me. It was as if I were seeking some kind of vindication for my own choice of career—to see others pursue writing as a career and not just a hobby. If that was what I was seeking, I guess I found it. Several of my students did go into journalism, or into writing fiction. One of them, Grace Green, has published over twenty novels, many of them translated into Spanish, German, Greek, and Dutch. If I could not join an existing society of writers, I could at least create such a society by training apprentices in the craft.
But the real society of writers arrived in a different form from what I had imagined. Starting in the late 1980s, I started serving as a "writer-in-electronic residence" for students scattered from Toronto to the Arctic. I was fascinated by what my students sent me, but also by the nature of this new medium and what it could teach us about writing itself. By the mid-1990s I'd created and taught my own online writing course. I was also getting involved informally with a host of writers connected through the Internet. Without realizing it, I was becoming part of a "community of practice"—a voluntary association of people sharing interests.
Much of that community formed, ironically, because I couldn't run my commercial fiction course any more; in an age of budget cutbacks, it had become a luxury my college couldn't afford.
So I gathered the course handouts into a booklet and gave a one-day version: an introduction to the craft and business. I also posted them on the Internet. The handouts eventually went onto a Web site as the Fiction Writer's Page, and it began to attract writers from around the world. Many of them wrote to thank me, and I was soon reading pieces of their work and offering advice, just as Dalton Trumbo and the Butlers and Ellins had read and criticized my work. I had my society of writers: a librarian in Australia, an office clerk in Johannesburg, an ex-FBI agent in Ohio. I didn't make a cent from this work (and didn't want to), but it has been extraordinarily rewarding.
As the 1980s went on, I kept publishing novels—but with decreasing financial success. Eyas, which I still consider my best work, did very poorly with Bantam. My next novel, Brother Jonathan, didn't interest Bantam at all, and it ended up with Ace at a fraction of the advances I'd made on my first novels. The same was true of Lifter. In the mid-1980s I was able to escape from Ace back to Del Rey, where a sympathetic editor republished Eyas and published two more novels based on Empire of Time, plus a space opera, Gryphon. When those novels did poorly, I pitched Lester del Rey on a fantasy novel, Greenmagic. It was fun to write, but like so many of my books it too failed to earn out its advance.
By 1990 I was eager to break out of genre. I tried a historical western based on California's Modoc War of 1872; it went nowhere. I tried a crime thriller with SF overtones, and it too failed to find a publisher. A Canadian house republished Brother Jonathan and Lifter as young adult titles, but sloppy editing allowed embarrassing numbers of typos; I wasn't too proud of them.
I had this consolation: I was writing what interested me, and most of it, after all, was getting into print. The only book I'd written for money, Tsunami, had been an unpleasant experience: two years of forcing a story into shape instead of writing a story that wanted to tell itself. Redmagic, a sequel to my first fantasy novel, turned out to be more sorcery than I was happy with, but it did pose some interesting technical challenges. I wasn't making money, or finding a large audience, but I was having fun.
In the mid-1990s, my career changed direction. The Province dropped my column in 1994. Much as I'd enjoyed writing it, I'd felt increasingly out of place in a tabloid moving sharply to the political right. A Vancouver weekly, the Georgia Straight, gave me opportunities to write much longer pieces on everything from charter schools to global warming.
After the publication of Redmagic in 1995, I couldn't seem to interest publishers in more fiction. I was also trying to keep up with the impact of computers in my own courses. So for several years I concentrated on journalism and articles about online education. Then, in 1997, Self-Counsel Press asked me for a book on writing science fiction and fantasy, and I used the Fiction Writer's Page materials (much expanded, revised, and adapted) as the basis for that book. It also contained much that I had learned from my online apprentices.
Meanwhile I had created a course in Web writing, which forced me to research the field and to think hard about this new medium. I was also drawing on the resources of the Web, and on professional Web writers—another community of practice. And again the course materials and the community of practice helped me to write another how-to book, Writing for the Web. It appeared first in 1999, and then in a second "Geeks'" edition in 2000. If it takes a village to raise a child, it also seems to take a community to create a book. That community can be very extensive: In September 2002, I gave a workshop in Web writing to seventy Brazilians in São Paulo. Even with the awkwardness of simultaneous translation, it was an enlightening experience—and some of the participants offered valuable insights that I hope to incorporate in a third edition of the book.
My experience with the Self-Counsel books, for which online research had been critical, got me thinking about print and electronic media in new ways. As I began to understand how hypertext works, I began to think about a hypertext version of Deserters, a novel I'd been working on for years—a novel about a Vietnam veteran who is experiencing flashbacks to various critical moments in his life. Rather than yank my hero arbitrarily backward and forward in time, I thought, I could let the reader explore his life in any sequence desired. Once the print version of the novel is complete, I hope to adapt it to hypertext.
That novel, Deserters, is only one of many projects I'm entangled in. Others include a revision of The Communications Book into a multimedia text; a collection of essays and articles about my onlineeducation experiences; another collection of general essays and articles; and at least a couple of science-fiction novels.
Commercial publication of these books would be nice, but that's not the point. The essay collections are giveaways—I'm publishing them on my own Web site, free for the taking. I hope Deserters finds a commercial publisher, and the textbook, because they should reach wider audiences than I can achieve on my own site. I have other projects in mind as well: a science fiction novel about nanotech, another revision of the crime thriller, maybe a full-scale family history.
Has it been worth it? Well, I tell my students that writing is its own reward. It helps rewire your brain so that you see things better, you get interested in more
things, you articulate your thoughts more clearly, and therefore you live better. It's like walking your dog, I tell them. The dog benefits from the exercise and so do you. If you happen to find a quarter in the street while you're doing it, that's very nice. But if you go out again and you don't find another quarter, that doesn't mean you're a failure as a dog-walker.
In the summer of 2001, Michael Butler held a kind of reunion. He and his wife now lived in British Columbia, on Saltspring Island. They invited friends and relatives from across North America to celebrate the eighty-fifth birthday of Michael's mother Jean . . . who had recently published her own memoir of the blacklist, Refugees from Hollywood. I saw my brother Linc for the first time in many years, Chris Trumbo, and most of the Butler sisters. (Chris and Michael became screenwriters, like their parents.) With these and other friends, some of whom I hadn't seen in forty years, the conversation resumed as if it had never been broken off. Jean was as bright and effervescent as ever, full of memories of our childhoods. She remembered reading "The Year of the Bat" in that long-ago Mexican summer.
And I had the rare joy of thanking her for setting me on my course.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
St. James Guide to Science-Fiction Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Analog Science Fact/Science Fiction, February, 1988, pp. 186-187; April, 1990, pp. 178-181.
Black Enterprise, June, 2001, Deanna Fay, "Of Prose and Code," p. 82.
Books in Canada, January, 1979; August-September, 1979.
Fantasy Review, January, 1985, p. 16; June, 1985,
p. 27; October, 1986, Muriel Becker, review of Lifter, p. 31.
Quill and Quire, May, 1995, p. 48; August, 1995, p. 27.
Science Fiction Chronicle, March, 1987, review of Lifter, p. 43; May, 1988, p. 45; October, 1989, p. 43.
Science Fiction Review, November, 1985, p. 38.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 1985, Hal Hoover, review of Brother Jonathan, p. 268; October, 1992, p. 240.
Writer, May, 2001, Marc Anderson, review of Writing for the Web, p. 47; June, 2002, Sally Laturi, review of Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, p. 55.
Crawford Kilian's Home Page,http://www.capcollege.bc.ca/dept/cmns/crofpers.html/ (October 28, 2002).
Freelance Writing Web site, http://www.freelancewriting.com/ (October 28, 2002), interview.
Rest Stop Writers' Newsletter,http://www.geocities.com/rsw-news/kilian.html/ (January, 1999), Paige Hess, "Interview at the Rest Stop with Crawford Kilian."
Technical Editors' Eyrie Web site, http://www.jeanweber.com/books/kilian.htm/ (October 28, 2002), Jean Weber, review of Writing for the Web.*