Friday, July 31, 2009

At Home with Jack Vance

Jack Vance at 92At 92 years of age (soon to be 93, on August 28), author Jack Vance is finally garnering some long-overdue, well-deserved attention in the media. And considering that he hasn't published any new fiction since 2004 (novel Lurulu, sequel to Ports of Call, 1998; both from Tor Books), this is indeed a remarkable accomplishment. Why all the media attention now? Because Vance has two books that have just been published by Subterranean Press. First and foremost is Vance's autobiography, This Is Me, Jack Vance! (more on this in a bit). The second title is anthology Songs of the Dying Earth, which is subtitled "Stories in Honor of Jack Vance." Songs features some of the best writers in the genre: Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin (who co-edited the anthology), Lucius Shepard, and Dan Simmons, to name only four, with an appreciation by Dean Koontz. What makes this book even more special is that Vance himself has written a new preface to open the anthology.

Carlo Rotella, director of American Studies at Boston College, wrote an excellent and lengthy piece (nearly 3,700 words) on Jack Vance entitled
"The Genre Artist" in the July 15 New York Times. Rotella's introduction to Vance's fiction occurred when he was 14 years old, and he's been reading the author's work ever since. In this article Rotella quotes from a number of Vance novels, quotes from contributors (Tanith Lee and Dan Simmons) to the Songs anthology, and even quotes from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon: "Jack Vance is the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don't get the credit they deserve. If 'The Last Castle' or 'The Dragon Masters' had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation, but because he's Jack Vance and published in Amazing Whatever, there's this insurmountable barrier." Well said, Mr. Chabon! I'm awaiting my copy of This Is Me, Jack Vance! from Subterranean Press, but in the meantime I have Rotella's article to tide me over. By the way, Rotella notes that "Vance takes pride in his craft but does not care to talk about it in any detail, going so far in his memoir as to consign almost all discussion of writing to a brief chapter at the end." If you're not familiar with Jack Vance, this article is a great mini-introduction to Vance's work, and his life. Kudos to Carlo Rotella.

I personally lay all the blame for my rampant book collecting on Jack Vance... Well, that's not really fair: his mass market paperback publishers Berkley Medallion and DAW Books actually share that dubious honor. I was already an avid book reader, but it was Jack Vance's Demon Princes series that drove me to my bibliophilic behavior. I don't recall how the Demon Princes series was brought to my attention, but in the early '80s I made a concerted effort to track down these five books. Now, you have to remember that at that point in time, there was no internet; there was no "online" in which to do an online book search. In those days we actually had to visit bookstores; and we used the telephone and, dare I say it, book catalogs sent through the mail to acquire specific titles. My favorite bookstore was Books, Inc. in the Town & Country shopping center near the corner of Stevens Creek and Winchester boulevards in San Jose. Books, Inc. closed down not too long after the Barnes and Noble superstore opened about a block away; and now the entire Town & Country shopping center is gone, replaced by the upscale Santana Row. But back to Books, Inc.: The store was a panacea for SF readers in particular because the management never returned a book. Regardless of the number of copies they ordered of any particular paperback, those copies would remain on the shelves until they sold. You could find paperbacks on the shelves that were years old, the pages often yellowed from age. So that's where I went to purchase the five volumes in Vance's Demon Princes series. The first three books in the series -- Star King, The Killing Machine, and The Palace of Love -- were published in the '60s by Berkley Medallion; the final two books in the series -- The Face and The Book of Dreams -- were published by DAW Books in 1979 and 1981 respectively. Unfortunately, I only found one of the DAW books on the shelf. A clerk assisted me by looking up the other four titles in Books in Print (available as a set of humongous hardcovers as well as on microfiche). It turned out that two of the five titles were out of print -- one from Berkley Medallion and the first book from DAW. And, not understanding the stupidity of publishers at the time, I couldn't comprehend why any publisher would allow the middle books of a five-book series to go out of print. It just didn't make any sense to me -- then. But in the course of looking through Books in Print, the clerk discovered that the series had been published in a hardcover edition by an independent press called Underwood-Miller. Great, I said, let's order them. Sorry, said the clerk, we don't deal directly with that publisher, and those titles aren't available through our regular distributor. Sigh... Time to go home and make some telephone calls to other bookstores in the area.

This is how I discovered genre bookstore Future Fantasy in Palo Alto, about a 25-mile drive from where I live. I telephoned the store, and yes, they could order the books for me, but I would have to pay for them in advance. So I made the drive to Palo Alto, only to discover that the store proprietor would only order one volume at a time -- even though I was willing to pay for the five books all at once, up front. Not sure of her rationale; but keep in mind that this was the early '80s and each of these trade hardcovers cost, I believe it was, $20.00 each -- so the set of five books was $100.00 (plus tax). Anyhow, I paid for the first book in advance, returned to the store a couple weeks later when the book arrived and paid in advance for the next one in the series, and so on until I owned all five books. Of course, I was now hooked on hardcovers and limited editions, having been in Future Fantasy -- browsing and buying -- six times over the span of about three months: the road to ruin, you might say. Future Fantasy moved a few years later to a larger store, but then the local competition and the internet finally took its toll and the store closed as well.




However, I eventually did track down all five original mass market paperbacks of the Demon Princes series (see above book covers); and to accomplish that, I had to get on the catalog mailing lists for several dealers in collectible paperbacks. But that's another story. Which brings me to the fact that when I visited Jack and Norma Vance at their home in Oakland in 1989, Jack was gracious enough to sign these five paperbacks, and a few others for me as well. Now, about that visit --

I tracked down Jack Vance's address -- it may have been through a copy of Who's Who, but I can't really recall any longer. I wrote him a letter, introduced myself, complimented him on his work -- essentially, I'll admit it, I wrote a fan letter. But within that letter I also asked Jack if he would be willing to answer [in person] a few questions on his work for a fanzine that I wrote for: Paperback Parade. That initial letter of mine was written on an old Apple computer, and though I still have the computer in storage, all the media are long gone. However, I do have Jack's response: a brief, printed letter in a very large font bearing his bold, black-marker signature; unfortunately, I no longer have the envelope the letter came in, and the letter itself is undated, but I would estimate the time frame to be around March 1989. Jack wrote: "Yes, give me a call two or three days before you want to come up. One day is much like another around here, but call first anyway. Any time in the morning will suit, or, if better for you, 2 or 3 in the afternoon. Bring your friend, by all means, and your books -- but, sorry to say, I won't have time for an extended visit."

The "friend" to whom Jack refers is a long-time friend of mine, Michael Tallan, a book collector and bookseller here in San Jose. Michael and I spent many a day together in years (and years) past, hitting the bookstores in San Francisco and Berkeley; attending author readings and book signings; hanging out together at conventions. On each of the two visits to Jack Vance, Michael drove and I navigated. Where I had maybe a handful of books for Jack to sign, Michael had brought a boxful. In fact, during that first visit, Michael had brought a copy of the Summer 1945 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, which contained Jack Vance's first published story: "The World-Thinkers." Ah, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Remember, this was 20 years ago, and much of the detail of that visit has been lost in the far recesses of ye olde memory. So please forgive me: I've plagiarized the description of the Vance home and the events of the day from my own (albeit brief) article in Paperback Parade. I wrote that piece when the day was vivid in my mind, and there is no way that, 20 years later, I could duplicate as effectively the words I wrote then.

On April 15, 1989, Michael and I made the drive to the Vance home. It was a typical warm, sunny Northern California afternoon, and a wonderful day to go visiting. Jack provided us with excellent directions from Berkeley -- Ashby Avenue, past the Berkeley Claremont Hotel, and onto the Warren Freeway. The Vance home, in the Oakland foothills, is atop a steep, long, gravel driveway. Michael parked at the bottom, off the main road, and we walked up the hill. Jack's son, John, met us out in front of the house and escorted us inside.

The Vances have a three-story hillside home. One walks up a flight of stairs, from the ground level, into the living quarters. Jack informed us that he purchased this land (and the "shack" that existed on it) in the '50s after completing a stint with the Merchant Marines. Over the years, he built up the property, initially by himself and then later with the help of John, to create the existing marvel.

Mrs. Vance -- Norma1 -- greeted Michael and me and then led us to the dining area where we sat and awaited Jack. Three sides of this room had oddly shaped glass windows, the fourth side was a small balcony that looked out over the kitchen below!

To my surprise, I learned that Jack is an avid potter and has a workshop downstairs. After joining us at the table, his hands still covered with the white of dried clay, he explained that he recently purchased a computer program on mixing glazes, but had had some difficulty with the software due to the flurry of computerese throughout the documentation. Jack even showed us the program manual in order to make his point. He then explained that he had telephoned the program's authors for some assistance and was now able to use the software.

Jack gave us a bit of a tour of the house, with special emphasis on the living room. The ceiling was comprised of imported, hand-tooled wooden tiles, each measuring approximately two-feet-square. Jack was obviously very proud of this ceiling; he spoke of the wood used to make the tiles and the woodworking -- I only wish I could remember from where (Pacific island?) he had imported the tiles.2 (Note: I suspect I'll learn all about the house -- and the tiles -- again, once I read the Vance autobiography.)

For the next two hours, Jack, Michael, and I chatted around the dining room table, munching mixed nuts from a large bowl that Norma had provided us. We discussed many of Jack's written works, past and present, and his future plans. Michael and I eagerly kept a constant flow of books in front of Jack until all were autographed. Due to Jack's limited eyesight, he uses a bold marker to sign books, his signature filling the page from margin to margin. I took a few photographs of Jack autographing our books but, since I chose not to impose upon him with the use of a flash, all the pictures unfortunately came out a bit too dark to reprint here, though a couple of the photos do appear alongside the interview in Paperback Parade. In retrospect, I'm now sorry that I didn't snap a picture or two of the Vance house.

Before our visit came to an end, I made sure that I had asked Jack the four questions that Gary Lovisi, editor and publisher of Paperback Parade, had provided me. Jack was opposed to my recording our conversation, however he did suggest that I take notes instead -- which I did. And since my note-taking was fast and furious, I was anxious to write up my notes as soon thereafter as possible.

Years later, I was searching for my own name on the net3, when I came across a website that was a resource of "Jack Vance Information." The owner of the site, Mike Berro, had catalogued every known book and story and nonfiction piece that Vance had written, as well as every known piece that was written about Vance -- including foreign editions as well. I was shocked to see my article from Paperback Parade included in this site's bibliography. I contacted Mike via email to express my surprise, and thus learned that a Vance interview -- even one as brief as mine -- was extremely rare, and therefore noteworthy. We exchanged a few emails (from which Mike quoted on the site) and then I gave him permission to reprint the entire article/mini-interview online. Earlier this week I went searching for that site so that I could link to it in this blog post, but alas the site is no longer in existence. And then I remembered the Wayback Machine! The name actually comes from the 1960s Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, specifically Mr. Peabody's "Improbable History" segment in which he transported back in time to some historical period in the WABAC (pronounced "wayback") machine. Anyhow, the
Wayback Machine to which I refer is part of the Internet Archives. If you know the specific URL from some past site, it's just possible that the Internet Archives has it archived. I couldn't recall Mike Berro's name initially, but I did some searching for the Jack Vance Information website, and finally found a broken link for a "mikeb" -- and that's when I remembered Mike Berro's name; I did a bit more searching, and finally snagged the entire URL. I then entered the full URL in the Wayback Machine, and found the site archived over a number of years; after some trial and error, I found the necessary pages. So, courtesy of the Internet Archives, you can read my communication with Mike Berro, and the transcribed text of my article in Paperback Parade.

And speaking of the importance of that mini-interview with Jack Vance: In my search for Berro's original Jack Vance Information site, I came upon another website, the Vance Museum. Unfortunately, there aren't many resources on this site, other than an extensive two-part
Jack Vance biography written by David B. Williams. I was again surprised to see an excerpt from my interview with Vance quoted in this bio: "There were a lot of influences and it would be most difficult to put names to all of them," he [Vance] told Marty Halpern. "Robert Louis Stevenson, for one. Golden Book magazine had a fantasy story each month, a wonderful magazine.... I loved the Oz books as a child too, but you’ll not see any of those influences in my work." This Williams biography of Jack Vance is astutely written and well worth the time to read.

Anyhow, it took an entire year for my article/interview to actually get published in Paperback Parade, appearing in issue #17, March 1990. Also in that same issue is a lengthy retrospective article by Gary Lovisi on the various paperback editions of Vance's The Dying Earth. Vance wrote a series of stories during the '50s while in the Merchant Marines, and those stories were pulled together to form The Dying Earth, which was first published by Hillman Periodicals, New York, in 1950. Gryphon Books (not to be confused with Golden Gryphon Press), the publisher of Paperback Parade, still has copies of issue #17 available (though a second printing, priced at $10.00), and it appears that the periodical is still going strong, with issue #72 mentioned in the "News" column.

Of course, after our April 15 visit, I followed up with another letter, thanking Jack and Norma for their kindness and hospitality. I received a response once again from Jack, this one dated April 20, in which he notes: "I will be at a bookstore, the Dark Carnival, in Berkeley for activities I ordinarily do my best to avoid: namely a book-signing between 2 and 4 pm April 30." He then invited me back to the house : "should you chance to be in the neighborhood at 5:30 pm -- I stipulate time, so as not to interfere with my work-habits," and he concluded with: "thank you for your kind words." Again, the large, bold Jack Vance signature in black marker.

Forward in time to March 1990: Shortly after PP #17 was published, my comp copies arrived in the mail, along with extra copies for Michael Tallan and Jack Vance. Road trip! Granted, I could have mailed the copy of the 'zine to Jack Vance, but what fun was there in that? So I contacted Michael to make sure he was up for another trip to the Vances, and then I wrote Jack Vance once more, explaining that the interview had finally been published and that I would like to personally present him with a copy of the fanzine. This time, however, I received a very kind response from Norma Vance, dated March 8, 1990. She began the letter with: "We look forward to seeing the fanzine and your article," and suggested that if it wasn't too short a notice, that I come that weekend, either Saturday the 10th or Sunday the 11th. I don't recall the date that we actually visited, but I'll assume it was that weekend. By this time Jack had lost most of his eyesight (thus the letter from Norma, and not Jack himself) following his glaucoma surgery the previous July (approximately 3 months after our first visit). Consequently Norma was always at Jack's side from then on to assist him with signing his autograph: she would help place his left hand, and specifically his thumb, on the page to be signed where his signature was to begin; Jack would then use his thumb as a guide to begin writing the capital letter "J" -- and the rest of his signature would then flow naturally across the page. By the time he was done signing, his left thumb, and often his left index finger, was covered in black marker ink. Regardless, Jack Vance never disappointed his fans whenever he made an appearance, though these appearances became extremely rare in the years immediately following.

I actually recall even less about this second visit than I do the first, most likely because I didn't write about it at the time. But I did get my copy of PP #17 signed, and if I recall correctly, Michael brought along yet another boxful of books. Besides, how could we not enjoy sharing yet another house visit with the Vances.



What makes Jack Vance's writing so seductive is the rich texture of his words, the exotic rhythms of his sentences, and all the subtle nuances that make up a story of his creation. And his character names... it is as if the stories had to be written around the names; the stories had to exist because the names existed. Does that make sense? For example, the names of the five villains in the Demon Princes series: Attel Malagate (book 1), Kokor Hekkus (2), Viole Falushe (3), Lens Larque (4), and Howard Alan Treesong (5).

Earlier, I mentioned Vance's last novel, Lurulu. The title word is an undefined something, that the various characters in the story search for. Much of the story takes place aboard an intersteller freighter called the Glicca, captained by Adair Maloof. The ship travels from planet to planet, where adventures -- and misadventures -- occur. Captain Maloof, in an attempt to explain lurulu, calls it "a special word from the language of myth. It is much a mystery to me now as when I first yearned for something which seemed forever lost. But one day I shall glance over my shoulder, and there it will be, wondering why I had not come sooner."

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Notes and Footnotes

The Jack Vance photo that opens this essay accompanied the New York Times article by Carlo Rotella; the photo was taken by Justin Stephens. Since I do not have the rights to reprint this photo, I have linked to the photo on the NYT website. It's an absolutely wonderful photograph of Jack Vance -- the man has traveled, the man has seen things. Thank you, Justin Stephens, for sharing this photograph with us.

And this is as good a time as any to thank my friend Michael Tallan for transporatation to and from the Vances' home -- twice. And for many more trips into the city for author readings and signings, and bookstore shopping.

1 I was saddened to read in the May 2008 issue of Locus magazine of the passing of Norma Vance. She was certainly a lovely, kind woman, always seeming to want to take care of us during our visits. And very protective of Jack, too. Born Norma Genvieve Ingold, on May 29, 1927; she passed away on March 25, 2008.

2 Though I didn't think to take photographs of the Vance house, I'm pleased to say that others did. Gan Uesli Starling evidently visited the Vances on January 21, 2000, according to his
website, and took a number of photographs during his visit. Fortunately, Gan has posted an account of his visit, along with the photographs, in which you can see the dining room table at which we sat, surrounded by the three walls of windows. There is even one solo photo of just the ceiling tiles!

3 Go ahead, admit it: we all search for our own name on the net! Now, you can even set up a Google Alert to automate the process!

Addendum:


About five hours after I posted this blog entry, I received an email from Francesca Myman, editorial assistant at Locus magazine, in which the above photograph was attached. I had requested this photograph earlier in the week for use on the blog; I especially wanted a photo of Norma Vance. But when Francesca responded yesterday, she explained that the Locus office was extremely hectic. With the passing of Charles Brown on July 12, I could certainly understand the situation, and so I told her not to worry about the photo, that I would find one of Jack Vance on the net to use. So, my surprise when the above photo arrived. This is a wonderful picture of Jack and Norma Vance, from 1997, and taken by Charles N. Brown. A special "thank you" to Francesca and Locus magazine for allowing me to post the photo here. Charles Brown was the glue, if you will, that held together the worldwide SF community, and his passing has surely left a huge gap in that community. My sincere condolences to the staff of Locus, and Charles's family and friends.

16 comments:

  1. Beautiful post, Marty! (and I should also say I already had the Google Alert set up for quite a while now. ;-)

    Fabio Fernandes

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  2. Hey, Fabio,

    Good to hear from you, and thanks for the kind words.

    To others reading this comment: Be sure to check out Fabio's blog, Post-Weird Thoughts: He has his own piece on Jack Vance, entitled "Jack Vance, Alive and Kicking."

    Cheers,
    - marty

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  3. Dear Marty,

    What a kind and generous post about Jack. I should add that in addition to the Subterrranean books you've listed, we also recently released a healthy gathering of his stories, WILD THYME, GREEN MAGIC.

    Best,

    Bill Schafer

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  4. Hey, Bill,

    Thanks for the kind words, but you know, after giving us nearly 60 years of wonderful fiction (so far, though I know he has said there won't be any more books), Jack Vance deserves so much more.

    And about all those Subterranean Press titles: if I were to write about all the other Jack Vance titles you've recently published, I'd have to post another blog entry!

    Take care, and thanks again.
    - marty

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  5. I taught several of Jack Vance's shorter works in my "SF as Literature" course at Penn in the 1980s: "The Last Castle" was one, and another was the one where the POV character, who lives on a houseboat, has to be able to play passably a number of different small musical instruments in order to communicate with the alien culture to which he is an ambassador (he's very bad at them). That one is really funny. I loved those stories. The class was mostly a little mystified, all but the most literary among them, and relieved when we went on to Speaker for the Dead. I tried him at novel length and found I didn't like him as well, but it could have been a question of the particular novels.

    Thanks, by the way, for the nice plug in your newest posting!

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  6. Hi, Judy,

    What a joy to have taught Jack Vance's stories at the university level! I think the best I got to read in college was Orwell. (Doesn't everyone?)

    The story you refer to, about the character who lives on a houseboat as an ambassador to an alien culture, and plays musical instruments as the method of communication -- and everyone on the planet has to wear masks -- is called "The Moon Moth." It was first published in Galaxy magazine in August 1961, and has since been reprinted in Green Magic and The Best of Jack Vance, and most recently in The Jack Vance Treasury from Subterranean Press. (See my comment above re: Sub Press.)

    In my blog essay I mentioned, albeit very briefly, the language of Vance in his fiction. In "The Moon Moth," one of the musical instruments that the main character, Edwer Thissell, plays is called the "stimic," which Vance describes as "an instrument well adapted to the sentiments of cool withdrawal, or even disapproval."

    Thanks for posting your comment, Judy.
    Cheers,
    - marty

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  7. Right, "The Moon Moth"--which was the name of one of the masks! And the characters SANG their dialogue while playing the instruments, right? What a great story.

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  8. I loved SubPress's Wild Thyme, Green Magic (reviewed here) and look forward to reading Songs of the Dying Earth very soon (it's sitting here waiting for me...). With so much twaddle being published as "fantasy" today, I applaud SubPress for giving us something worth reading.

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  9. Hey, Kat,

    No question as to the quality of Sub Press's books... and Bill Schafer certainly has been supportive of Jack Vance's work.

    And keep blogging, Kat, about quality fantasy lit!

    - marty

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  10. A lovely post about the incomparable Jack Vance. I'm a longtime fan, re-read his books often and they never lose their magic. Thanks much, Marty.

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  11. Hi, Gary,

    And thanks, too, for your kind comments as well. I think what makes Jack Vance unique from a "fan" perspective is how cordial he (and Norma, too) was to regular folks like me. I mentioned in my "Notes" section above that Gan Uesli Starling wrote online about his visit with the Vances; and if you search the web, as I did, you'll find other instances where the Vances have invited others into their home as well.

    And Jack Vance has certainly given us an amazing oeuvre to read -- and re-read -- as you say.

    Cheers,
    - marty

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  12. Happy birthday mister Vance !
    2011 ! he just reached the age of 96 ! wow

    Have a very fine day master of S&F

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  13. Martin,

    Thanks for the reminder!

    Congratulations, indeed, Jack Vance -- Happy Birthday, and many more to come!

    Cheers,
    - marty

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  14. you're welcome (;

    I think it is a great article ! thanks for it

    Kind regards Martin from the Netherlands

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  15. A fine article. Nice to see a good appreciation of Vance.

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  16. Thanks, Aaron; and thanks once again, Martin.
    Cheers, all,
    - marty

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