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Friday, July 27, 2012

C. J. Cherryh: Exceptional & Accessible

An exception novel, by an exceptional author.

Even before I finally met her, I knew she was an exceptional author. 

In 1998, I attended Westercon, my first real Science Fiction convention.  There I purchased a subscription to “Locus,” a monthly magazine that covers the Science Fiction and Fantasy literary market.  Reviewers regularly praised novels by C. J. Cherryh.  Those same novels almost always landed on the Recommended Reading list each February, from which subscribers vote on the Locus awards.  At some point, I learned she had won several Hugo awards, which are voted upon by the members of each year’s World Science Fiction Convention.  After awhile, I began attending local conventions, where I heard her work frequently cited by panelists.  Over time, it grew clear to me what an influential author she was.

When she was selected a few years back as the Guest of Honor at Condor, my local convention, I realized I needed to buckle down and start reading her books.  Yet reading Fiction is an instinctive process that defies my best intentions.  I can be looking forward to reading a particular book, but when I pick it up, I suddenly realize that, for whatever reason, something in me is calling me to read something else.  Because of this, books that I want to read immediately sometimes linger for years before something in my brain decides, “Okay, it’s that book’s time now.”

Such was the case with C. J. Cherryh.  Her Hugo-winning novel, Downbelow Station, had sat on my shelf for years.  Finally, a few weeks before the convention, I picked it up and started reading it.  Yet, even though I knew I would see her shortly, and had looked forward to reading this book seemingly forever, I just couldn’t immerse myself in the story.  So reluctantly, I set the book aside.  At least I’d be able to listen to her insights during the panel discussions, even if I lacked a basic understanding of her work and career.

Then it happened.  I saw her standing in the con suite, enjoying a snack between panels.  She seemed approachable.  And suddenly it struck me I had something to ask with her about: her strong relationship with the DAW publishing company.  Having read “Locus” for so long, I had read a lot about its founder, Donald A Wollheim.  He had helped many great authors such as Robert Silverberg and Roger Zelazny launch their careers, had edited and run publishing houses before starting his own, and had proved instrumental in developing the SF and Fantasy paperback field.  Yet he was also something of a divisive figure in publishing.  It seemed as if I was regularly reading some criticism about his business methods, or the way he took advantage of his authors.  One case in particular bothered me: reports that Donald Wollheim had printed paperback editions of The Lord of the Rings without J. R. R. Tolkien’s permission. 

C. J. Cherryh had known Donald Wollheim personally.  Even if he had discovered her, I couldn’t believe that such a well liked and highly regarded author would have stuck by someone as unethical as some reports had painted him.  I asked her about him, treading carefully at first, knowing that she had developed strong links with the Wollheim family and Sheila Gilbert, who with Donald’s daughter Elizabeth (or Betsy) now runs DAW.  I soon found the time flowing by as she told me story after story of his kindnesses to her and other authors, and illuminated me as to what had really occurred on each of the issues I raised.  After I had spoken with her awhile, I respectfully asked her about the charges regarding Tolkien.  Her explanation of Donald’s actions seemed logical and reasonable, and overall, I gained the sense of a man who cared deeply about authors, their work, and the SF and Fantasy field.

I found her to be an utterly delightful conversationalist, completely without airs.  Some authors might have feigned outrage at my audacity to even respectfully ask such questions.  She took them at face value, recognizing that I was interested not only in her personal history, but wanted to fully understand such an important historical figure in Science Fiction publishing.  Nor did she seem upset that I asked her no questions specific to her stories.  Not once did she look at her watch, search out others to talk to, try to steer the conversation onto another topic of her choosing, or invent an excuse to back out of our conversation gracefully. 

In the end, I was the one to break off our discussion, as there was a panel coming up that I wished to attend.  I got the feeling she really enjoyed our conversation, and would have willingly spoken with me for as long as I desired.  Because of C. J. Cherryh, I also know that if I ever have the honor of being published by DAW, I would be well cared for as a writer.  That means a lot, given the constant uncertainties surrounding the publication field and authors' careers. 

After the convention, I found myself picking up Downbelow Station.  I bonded with her characters and their dilemmas.  I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.  When the novel ended, I understood why it had won the Hugo award.  Yet more than that: I was devastated that the story was over.  So the next time I headed out to the bookstore, I sought out more novels by C. J. Cherryh, whom I had come to realize was not only friendly, gracious and completely down-to-Earth, but also an author of exceptional storytelling ability. 

Reminiscing about a literary role model,
Dragon Dave

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