Category Archives: Assignments
A collection of letters and misc. writings entitled “When the Mollusc Met the Bear” were found hidden in the University of Oregon’s special archives in the storage room. The letters include letters written to Vonda N. McIntyre from Ursula K. Le Guin, letters to James Tiptree Jr. from Le Guin, and vice versa. How these letters escaped the librarians’ attention is unknown (they are likewise, dumbfounded). Note, some of these letters have deteriorated or are in bad condition; thus, some letters are unfinished, for the other parts are missing. In order to share with you all these rare documents, I have included a link to a pdf, to save the trouble of transcribing these letters into text onto the blog and to avoid confusion. Enjoy!
-Your fellow researcher, Grace
Throughout this term, I have primarily studied the life, correspondence, and published works of Vonda N. McIntyre, a Pacific Northwest science fiction author. McIntyre was born in Louisville, Kentucky on August 28, 1948 and has lived primarily in Seattle since her family settled there in the early 1960s. She is a 3-time winner of the Nebula Award and also won the 1979 Hugo Award for her acclaimed novel Dreamsnake.
After McIntyre spoke to our class in early November, I decided that I wanted to go further in-depth with my questions and conduct an interview with her to share with the class. You now have that interview, below. To develop my questions, I worked in the University of Oregon’s Special Collections, mainly in the Joanna Russ and Ursula K. Le Guin papers. It was a really interesting experience to be able to read through the letters of someone only a few years older than myself experiencing an earlier moment in history. McIntyre’s letters gave me a different, and better, perspective on many of the issues facing the country and young women in particular in the 1970s.
For additional background on Vonda, please see Kelsie’s excellent Wikipedia article: Vonda N. McIntyre. It provides a nice biography and bibliography.
Quintin – In your early 20’s, you left your PhD program in genetics at University of Washington and consequently began to write for a living. At that time, did you think writing would be your career, or something to do with your BS in Biology? At what point did you consider yourself a professional writer, as opposed to an amateur? What did that change mean to you?
Vonda – When I quit grad school, it was because I realized that as a research scientist, I made a very good SF writer. I already considered myself a professional writer. I had sold several stories, beginning in the summer of 1969, and had joined SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America, now Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, www.sfwa.org ), and had some interest in my first novel.
I met Russ and Le Guin after I’d sold a number of stories.
I met Ursula at the 1971 SFWA Nebula banquet in Berkeley, CA. After talking to her for about 37 nanoseconds, I asked if she would teach at the first Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle that coming summer. She agreed. (She was wonderful, and taught at all three sessions of the first incarnation of Clarion West, 1971-72-73.) She has always treated me as a peer, even when I was an ignorant pup, for which I’ll be eternally grateful.
I never met Tiptree. Our by-mail relationship began when Susan Anderson and I bought “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” for our humanist anthology of SF stories, Aurora: Beyond Equality. She called me when she knew Tiptree was about to be outed. She was afraid people would hate her for not being Tiptree. I don’t know of anyone who changed their high opinion of Tip/Alli after the revelation. I was glad to know her as both Tip and as Alli.
You spoke a lot with Joanna Russ about your take on the feminist movement in the 1970s as a young woman. What do you feel has changed for women today, both at the university-level in general and in the sciences specifically? What about for beginning female authors?
As I’m neither an academic nor a scientist, I’m not qualified to answer the first question. There’s a good bit of discussion going on about the subject on various science and academic blogs, and I encourage you to search them out.
I would have hoped that things would have changed more, forty years down the line, but you still run into people who think there’s little or no room for women (or people of color) in SF — as writers, as readers, as characters. I thought we already fought that fight in the 1970s, and am appalled by the abuse directed at women SF writers and writers of color. This despite their having invigorated the field with original work and new perspectives. You have to wonder what some people are afraid of.
Something Kelsie pointed out was the parallel between your apartment in Seattle getting robbed in college (and your files taken) and Snake having her journal stolen by the crazy in Dreamsnake. Did real life inspire fiction here? How do things in your own life inspire your writing?
I don’t remember consciously making that connection, but it certainly could have been an inspiration. I don’t often base stories on specific events in my own life. I think events have to go through a fermentation process before they’re fit for fictional use.
As a young author, you didn’t hire a literary agent until after you won your first Nebula Award in 1973. Was this a conscious choice? I also saw that you continued to handle a lot of business affairs as an anthology editor and workshop organizer, even afterward. Do you like the financial management aspect of authorship, or was this a bit of Northwest DIY-ism?
At the time, a writer didn’t need an agent to submit short stories, and I believe that’s pretty much still true. The payment for short stories is so low, for most SF writers, that it isn’t worthwhile for an agent to negotiate a short story contract.
I negotiated the contract for my first novel myself. It ended up being a pretty good contract, partly because Fawcett Gold Medal, which published The Exile Waiting, had a decent boilerplate contract that didn’t require a great deal of negotiation, and partly because SFWA has a lot of information available for new writers about contracts. And also because the editor, Joseph Elder, was a good and fair editor.
Contracts these days are grabby and greedy. Often the most objectionable clauses are the least negotiable. Even with an agent watching your back, sometimes you have to say “No” and walk away.
When I was ready to submit Dreamsnake for publication, I was also ready to find an agent. I was lucky in my choice, Frances Collin, who still represents me.
I don’t particularly enjoy financial management. After Aurora, I didn’t edit another anthology till Nebula Awards Showcase 2004. I didn’t handle the finances of the first incarnation of Clarion West (1971-1973), and though I’ve taught at the second incarnation (1984-present), other folks run it — much more competently that I would have done.
I grew up on the eastern side of the Oregon Coast Range, and I’m curious about how you were affected by your experience living at the Le Guin Cabin in Rose Lodge, Oregon? I understand you primarily lived there as you gained notoriety as an author and produced your first novel. How did the isolation of the PNW rainforest affect you?
I was very grateful to have the cabin to stay in. I enjoyed the solitude. If I was notorious as a writer I was, I’m afraid, unaware of that. I don’t believe I’ve been back to Rose Lodge since I moved out of the cabin and returned to Seattle and, after a year or so renting a Lake Forest Park mother-in-law apartment, bought a house.
More so than other authors we’ve read in our class, you have worked in Hollywood and in television. What motivated you to take your work in that direction? Were you influenced by Harlan Ellison? Could you talk a bit about the upcoming production of The Moon and the Sun?
I haven’t worked in Hollywood or in television. I wrote some teleplays when I was a pup — if I wrote an on spec teleplay, the series was sure to be cancelled the day after I finished.
I wrote two screenplays at the Chesterfield Company’s Writers Film Project (sponsored by Amblin Entertainment and Universal Studios) in Los Angeles, one of which turned into the novel The Moon and the Sun, which is scheduled to begin filming in the spring of 2014. They aren’t, however, using my screenplay. I can’t tell you anything more than you can find on the Internet, except that it’s going to be beautiful.
You may be thinking of the tie-in novels that I’ve written, mostly for Star Trek. They were great fun, but they don’t qualify as “working in Hollywood.” Most tie-in writers don’t hang out on the set or with the actors or the producers or the directors. Most tie-in writers for movies don’t get to see the movie before the book has to be finished. You’re lucky if you see a few publicity stills. (Any or all of that may have changed since the last time I wrote a tie-in novel.) The deadlines were usually pretty ferocious, so mostly what I did was write till I was too tired to work any more, sleep for a while, get up, and go back to writing.
I’ve blogged about tie-in work a couple of times. You might find the essays interesting, or at least amusing:
And of course the Starfarers Quartet started out as the best SF miniseries never made:
McIntyre, Vonda N. University of Oregon Special Collections (Eugene, OR), Joanna Russ Papers, “Correspondance with Vonda N. McIntyre, 1970-1988,” Box 8, Folders 18-25. Accessed October-December 2013.
McIntyre, Vonda N. University of Oregon Special Collections (Eugene, OR), Ursula Le Guin Papers [RESTRICTED], “Correspondance with Vonda N. McIntyre,” Box 22, Folders 11-14. Accessed November 2013.
Everyone says this about every book, I know. By the end of the term it’s pretty cliché, but honestly and truly, if you want to experience this book – and that’s what it can be, an experience – you have to leave now, and read it first. Then you can see what I have to say about it. But seriously, no peeking! This book review is for the eyes of those who have read it already (and for those who do not care about twists and turns – because this book does have a lot of content to offer, not just a surprise inside).
Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is her newest book, written earlier this year. It’s a story – about a story – that starts in the middle – which, in a normal story, would be where the action happens. But, because it’s not the story about the story’s middle, this is where ‘setting the scene’ happens. Are you lost yet? It’s a little Memento at first, with things just happening and having no reason for any of it. Her middle isn’t quite as crazy, though – this isn’t science fiction in that sense.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is three-quarters autobiography and one-quarter desperation, depression, and, finally, hope. The scene is set when our narrator, Rosemary, is in college, meeting a woman named Harlow for the first time. Harlow, as Rosemary tells us about others in her tale, isn’t necessarily a part of the story we need to get attached to – her purpose is to make Rosemary open up, if only in her head. Almost all the storytelling is told through Rosemary’s retelling of events, her thoughts and feelings.
Rosemary gets sent to jail for the first time for a minor disturbance in a cafeteria Harlow started with her boyfriend. Harlow is spitfire, wild and crazy – the opposite of Rosemary, but Rosemary hasn’t always been that way. As a child she was out there, talked all the time and did the crazy things kids her age usually did. But she lost a sister, Fern, after spending half a decade together, and it changed her life. They were two peas in a pod, closer than can be, and the two of them along with Rosemary’s brother, her father and mother made a really happy family. But she eventually lost her brother, too. They just disappeared – she has no idea where either of them went.
Rosemary went from exuberant and lively to a more reserved and withdrawn version of herself. Fern brought life to her life – it’s obvious from the pain she feels, even though Rosemary doesn’t explicitly express it. Rosemary’s family changed, too, when Fern left. They all became quiet, and they all withdrew into themselves. That’s why her brother, Lowell, left. He couldn’t take it anymore – he needed to get out the house, he needed to live again and do something. Their home was a place where everyone was standing still. Fern leaving, and everyone just looking past it, sent him over the edge.
Usually, a broken home and a broken family are normal after a child disappears. The tragedies we see when children are abducted or killed are received with grief and despair – all completely and absolutely normal, human reactions. Unfortunately, the same isn’t always said when a chimp leaves your life. A ‘pet’ some from the outside might even say. When a chimp leaves, you don’t get to shut down and stop everything – you just have to move on.
Wait a second, I’m sorry – I might have just Memento’d you. Did I forget to mention Fern was a chimpanzee, and that Rosemary’s father is a scientist? Of course I did, because Rosemary fails to mention it, too. You hear about the middle for a while, and then you get to hear the beginning – how Fern came to be a part of their lives. The prevalence of chimps in households was increasing, and her father wanted to expand the research available in the field. They raised Rosemary and Fern together, making them both part of the experiment – they wanted to know what would happen when they grew up together. Rosemary and Fern were attached at the hip, growing up as normally as you can when your sister is a chimp. They were studied by Rosemary’s father and the graduate students that he received to help as part of a special research grant, with Fern’s development the specific concern.
It’s unclear from Rosemary’s perspective if their family expected it, but Fern became a second daughter. Rosemary never considered her anything other than a sister – chimp or not. As Fern got older, however, the differences in their species became more and more apparent. Fern had more and more accidents, when a particular incident with a grad student sent things over the edge. They had to end the experiment before she got any stronger and uncontrollable, and they sent her away. The family, from then on, never talked about her and no one told Rosemary where Fern was. Fern was just gone from Rosemary’s life, forever.
Rosemary’s brother, Lowell (a human!), couldn’t take it. The family shut down, but not in grief – just in general. They stopped being a family, they stopped showing love the way they used to. He left, and Rosemary is just being reunited with him in the middle of her story – though not the middle of ours. The middle of our story is the beginning, and then there’s the end that Rosemary is experiencing as it happens. As I said before, those times are filled with sadness and happiness alike, with twists and turns of their own. I won’t spoil those, for that you’ll really have to read the story.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is an amazing testament of love and family, despite boundaries created by genus and species. In a feminist science fiction course, this book might seem almost out of place. But Fowler presents a take on feminism we don’t think of very often – one that takes feminism to literally mean people should be equal, one that redefines what ‘people’ should mean. Fowler presents a world where you can see the human in an animal, and where the animal in the human can be. A compelling read, it’s certainly worth taking the time – it will fly by, as it does for Rosemary, as you hear of her tale of loss, reunion, and discovery.