|In Memoriam: Philip Jose Farmer
||[Feb. 25th, 2009|05:15 pm]
As I wrote this morning, and as I guess a lot of people know now, Philip Jose Farmer passed away peacefully in his sleep this morning, at the age of 91.
He was at home--Peoria, Illinois, in a neighborhood a quick drive from a science and local history museum he introduced me to, and just a few miles from the house where he grew up and the pharmacy where he discovered his first science fiction magazine. Being at home was incredibly important to him. He'd endured a great many hospital visits over the past few years, but he always hated being there, and he always recovered faster when he could be at home, next to his wife Bette and near the thousands of books he still happily owned.
To me, obviously, he wasn't just a great author; he was also the great-uncle who first inspired me to write seriously, and encouraged me at every step along the way. I'm going to put my reminisces about him behind a cut so I won't be self-conscious about length or rambling, as I imagine what I have to write may get pretty long.
As far as I know I first met him when I was five years old, on a trip to Peoria in the summer of 1976--but all I knew at that age was that my aunt was my grandmother's sister, Peoria was a long way away from Virginia, and my uncle's freezer contained fudge pops. I visited again as something more resembling an adult at age 12, in June of 1983, and those two weeks changed my life.
I've written about this on Live Journal before, plenty of times I'm sure, but I consider it worth repeating. Up till that point I had done some writing--my first "book" at age five and short stories at eight--but for the previous four years I'd been cartooning, and that's what I wanted to do with my life. By age ten I knew the word "syndicated" and what it entailed. But going to Peoria was like Uncle Phil casting a spell on me.
The way I've put it before was that I obviously knew that people wrote books rather than just the text magically appearing, but something about visiting my uncle made this click. I imagine it was a combination of elixirs: listening to him typing in the basement (I think he was working on one of the later World of Tiers novels at the time), conversations about most everything that could last for hours, and being surrounded by no less than 20,000 books on every conceivable subject from advanced science to a collection of old Little Orphan Annie comics.
All of those deserve their own explanations.
The books first: He was a voracious bibliophile, and when I visited in 1983 nearly every wall in his basement's writing room, his den, and his bedroom was lined with book-brimming shelves. On top of the love of books, there were also thousands of volumes he had either for enjoyment or reference that couldn't be found at a Peoria library--this was well before the Internet became widespread, though he preferred books to computer screens anyway--and this was an example I followed later. (And still do for all that with my own 3000 volumes.)
He sold off a lot of his books when he and Aunt B started moving frequently during the 1990's, but my aunt could still complain "He'll go to the bookstore to sell one book and come back with two!" When I returned to Peoria in 1997 he took me to a waterfront bookstore he enjoyed, bought himself something, and got me a couple of things as well.
Conversations: Phil Farmer was a walking encyclopedia. Except encyclopedias can be bone dry; he never was. It wasn't just the information--it was the enthusiasm he brought to everything that interested him, and he was interested in nearly everything.
You could talk to him for hours without getting bored. When he and my aunt visited my grandparents in 1989 he and I chatted away for nearly four hours over a dozen different subjects, mostly science and history. If the subject flew well beyond your ken he would start out simple and then lead you deeper and deeper in until you felt as if you had just talked to an expert about genetics, or linguistics, or biology, or astronomy, or whatever you happened to catch from him. On either my '97 or '98 trip he told me that he regretted never becoming a professor.
This is something else he gave me--a fascination just about anything the world can offer up. When you have that, you're never bored.
Writing: This is a Mystery to me. When I came to visit in 1983 I was told (though I'd like to think the telling was unnecessary) not to bother Uncle Phil while he was writing. But I couldn't help myself...I never went down to the basement to talk to him but I did stealthily (I hope) sneak about halfway down the basement steps to listen to him type. Just listening. For up to an hour at a time. I don't know what fascinated me so much about it, but I think it was the sheer process of creation. That he could sit down there from morning to lunch and then again from early to mid- or late afternoon and just create. Weave an entire book in a matter of weeks. (The story of my step-sneaking amused him when I told him years later--but he would never say if he'd heard me there, or knew I was there from my aunt telling him about my occasional disappearances.)
I spent the rest of that summer and fall working on a science fiction novel: The Logs of Stuart Harding, Modern Day Time Traveler. It was very Voyagers!-like in that it was about a man and boy traveling through time fixing history. It ran about 120 handwritten pages and, alas, is mostly lost. My next novel was a post-Michener discovery historical epic rather than SF, but by then I was hooked on the craft.
(By the way, on top of everything else he took me on my first riverboat ride that fae summer of '83: an hour-long cruise up and down the Illinois River on the sternwheeler Julia Belle Swain. I even got to play the boat's steam-whistle carillon. So yes, riverboats--and zeppelins and biplanes--have enjoyed a deep place in my heart since then. In fact he got me interested in a great many things still counting among my favorites to this day.)
It pleased him when year after year went by and I was still writing. We exchanged occasional letters: I would tell him about my writing (and hiking, and other matters); he would tell me about his writing (and getting his first home computer, and other matters). He would always encourage my writing. In a letter from around 1986 he told me that if I wanted to write good science fiction I should study three things: biology, anthropology, and classical poetry. I still take that to heart.
From 1997 to 2002 I had a long (in more than just time) hiatus where I wasn't writing anymore--at least not in a regular, serious, disciplined way. I'd given up on myself to be quite frank. Those are some of the worst years of my life. They were plagued with an ongoing depression that I know now was caused by the lack of writing. But then in 2002 Laurie kick-started me with a fire under my tail and I got to work on an alternate history SF novel I'd had in my head for three years: The Course of Heaven, about humanity having a first encounter with extraterrestrials during the 1st century A.D. I dove in, starving.
By the time I went to visit my uncle in Peoria that August I had eight chapters, and I brought them for him to see. There was also an ulterior motive: I'd discovered his unfinished book The City Beyond Play, and I wanted to be the one to finish it. After reading the beginning of the book (at least the first chapter, maybe more), Uncle Phil gave me permission. But it came with one condition: I'd finish my own project first.
That took until New Year's Day of 2004, but I considered the book to be a huge (160,000 word) mish-mash. So I wanted to hone my skills a little more, especially brevity: I spent most of 2004 writing short stories, publishing a few along with selling some poetry, and started a YA fantasy novel that winter. In the spring of '05 I started a prequel to the fantasy, but then a dozen chapters in I was struck with the sudden knowing of If you don't get to work NOW on The City Beyond Play you'll never get it written.
So I got to work. The book had been in my head for three years by that point, and I came very close to Uncle Phil's own productivity prediction in his original query: he said he could write it in two weeks and it would come in around 30,000 words. I wrote it in 2 1/2, a chapter a day each weekday, and it came in at 34K. And at the risk of sounding woo-woo mystical, whenever I was writing my brain felt as if it took a back seat. I'd dive in, type almost as if I was doing automatic writing, and I'd realize when my brain starting slipping "back" to me that the chapter was nearly done. It was odd but in an intriguing sort of way. That had never happened to me before and it hasn't happened since.
Though he could no longer physically write, I was still able to talk to him several times over the phone about the book.
Chris Lotts, Uncle Phil's agent, loved the book, and challenged Subterranean Press and PS Publishing to figure out where Farmer left off and Adams began. They both bid; PS won; the book came out in October of 2007.
The City Beyond Play--or more accurately, any book co-written with Philip Jose Farmer--was my first and strongest Dream Book. (The other is Shenandoah.) When it came out I felt as if I would be happy even if I never published anything else; that any other publications would simply be icing on the cake. This feeling suddenly strengthened exponentially this morning when Mom told me Uncle Phil was gone.
His last solo novel was his first Tarzan novel, The Dark Heart of Time, which came out in the late 1990's. Back and eye trouble eliminated his ability to write for eight hours a day by 1997; unfortunately it wasn't long after that when mini-strokes, TIAs, started eliminating his ability to write at all. From that point on he was especially glad that there was still a writer in the family, and he told me so often when I would visit. I admitted last summer that one of my qualms about writing Shenandoah was that I actually felt it was akin to a betrayal...because it wasn't speculative fiction. At that point I found out that, again, he was simply glad that I was writing, and especially that he had been my perpetual inspiration.
After my grandmother died in 1996 and my grandfather in 2001, Uncle Phil and Aunt B became like surrogate grandparents to me, even as rarely as I got to see them.
All in all, I don't think my writing is anywhere near to Farmerian quality--maybe you could call his "Brobdingnagian" quality!--but in the end it doesn't matter. The writing is all that matters; I feel that way now even after publishing, and he always felt the same way about his own, and that it was his great fortune to be able to do it for a living. (Not to mention the fact that--and I feel this way too--it gave him an excuse to always learn about new things.) Writing is a gift; love of things of the world and universe is a gift; and I always considered writing something that saved my life.
Uncle Phil gave me that. So, as I once told him (to his embarrassment, I'm sure), from that perspective he saved my life.
A few years ago I started writing a personal Riverworld story where I met up with Uncle Phil on a riverboat (naturally) whose passenger manifest included Sam Clemens / Mark Twain, Sir Richard Francis Burton, Alice Liddell Hargraeves--all of whom were pleased that he wrote about them--and others of my own choosing, like Julius "Groucho" Marx. I fully expect that he's emerged on the beach along that 20 million mile-long river by now, found himself a Grail, and has gone hunting for the headwaters...or maybe Clemens or Burton themselves. If they're lucky.
I miss you, Uncle Phil. I will every time I write, every time I learn something new that I think is wonderful--especially if it's something I'd want to tell you about--and every time I see anything that overflows my sense of wonder. Someday, I'll meet you on the River.