Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Coveted Thelma Award, part one

I met Michael Reaves at a science fiction convention, a Westercon, held at the Crystal Palace in San Francisco, nearly thirty years ago. It was in the SFWA suite, where I had been admitted as a newly-joined member, having sold all of three or four short stories. I was sitting on the bed talking to Diane Duane, a conversation involving colostomies and venereal diseases thereof that had driven away anybody listening, when Reaves arrived in the company of Pat Murphy. It seemed an editor who shall remain nameless here, (though he was known as “The Octopus” because he’d put a tentacle on any woman within reach) had made a sloppy pass at Murphy, and Reaves was most upset over this. He walked around muttering darkly to himself, smacking his fist into his palm and letting it be known that he wouldn’t mind giving the Nameless Editor a lesson in manners. Nay, in fact, he would much enjoy such a prospect, educating the slimy son-of-a-bitch!

I was introduced to Reaves by Diane. I confess I was not really impressed by this angry, long-haired, bearded mutterer. He was angry, caustic, profane, and, it seemed to me at the time, on the edge of psychosis.

Fast forward a couple of months. Several Clarion alumni (Clarion being the place for budding science fiction and fantasy writers to study the craft of writing, then and now) who lived in L.A. decided they needed to have a week-long writing workshop. Spearheaded by Richard Kearns, the first -- and it turned out, the only -- Silverlake Writers Workshop was planned for the week between the next Christmas and New Year’s Day, and as a relatively new pro, would I be interested in attending?

I was interested. I much wanted to be a real writer in the company of other writers. I had wanted to go to Clarion, but couldn't afford either the time or the money. By the time I could afford both, I didn't need to go any more ...)

I bundled up a few stories to workshop and flew from my new home in Oregon to L.A.

The event was held at a rented Methodist youth camp in the San Gabriel Mountains, just outside the smog curtain. The place was rustic, homey enough, indoor plumbing and all, though overrun with black widow spiders. You haven’t lived until you reach for the toilet paper and see a black widow perched on the roller, flashing its hourglass grin, and daring you to put your hand there.

It was an interesting week. Among the attendees I can still remember for sure were: Pat Murphy, George Guthridge, Glenn Chang, Avon Swofford, Cheri Wilkerson, Raymond Embrak, Evelyn Sharenov, Sue Petrey, Richard Kadrey, Richard Kearns, Michael Reaves and Yours Truly. I think Art Cover may have come and gone, and Ted Sturgeon almost drove up, but didn’t. Most of us were at about the same level of success, having sold a few stories each.

Reaves and I gained our first connection during the workshopping . Several times, the writing in one of his stories was referred to by members of the group as “slick.” And in a fit of misplaced humor, Dick Kearns had on the cover sheet renamed my dark fantasy piece, “The Duke of Darkness,” to “The Duck of Darkness,” which effectively killed any serious consideration of it. And Kearns had also deliberately misspelled “Reaves,” as “Reeves.” Thus Michael and I both felt picked upon. He became “Slick,” and I “Duke,” at least to each other.

Reaves was the star: In addition to having written short stories, he also wrote animation for television, and he was the only attendee to have sold actual novels, two of them: I Alien, and the about to be published Dragonworld. He even had a T-shirt with the cover of the latter printed on it. Somebody, while we were playing pool one evening, took Reaves to task for the shirt, and his response was so withering, so cutting, that I ducked to avoid the spray of blood and singed body parts I expected. The guy’s mouth could cut a room full of sailors to shreds.

While waiting for the gore, in one of my rare epiphanies, I had a moment of psychological X-ray vision: I was able to see with perfect clarity through the flinty-snappy-comeback-up-yours-protective armor Reaves wore to the man beneath it, and wow! it was obvious to me that he wasn’t a nasty hard ass at all, but was, in fact, a nice guy. Amazing. I believe I even came to his defense, regarding the shirt. A second connection was forged.

Later on, while I was perched up on the hill overlooking the main cabin, vainly trying to play a flute I had recently bought, Reaves drifted up, and we talked. Nothing earth-shaking, just a pleasant writer-to-writer conversation.

In due course, we finished the gathering and went our separate ways. Most of the Silverlake alumni continued writing, and have since produced a goodly number of non-fiction, short stories, novels, television scripts, and movie scripts. Several have been nominated for major awards in the field -- the late Sue Petrie, George Guthridge, and Pat Murphy -- Pat having won the Hugo and the Nebula a couple of times. Even a few bestsellers scattered in there, too.

(Most of the preceeding was cribbed from the afterword I did for Michael's short story collection, The Night People, edited and published by Lydia Marano, for Babbage Press.)

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