The news came across the lists this morning: Algis Budrys died.
On the one hand, his death was not a surprise. AJ had been sick for a long time. On the other hand, it’s quite a shock. It seems like I’ve known AJ all my life. When I met him, he wasn’t well, but he wasn’t horribly ill either. It just seemed that AJ would be around forever.
I met AJ in June of 1985, when I attended Clarion Writers Workshop in East Lansing, Michigan. In those days, I wasn’t a genre reader. Or at least, I didn’t know I was a genre reader. I read every book in my path. I also subscribed to fiction magazines, including F&SF. I had read AJ’s book columns, but I didn’t know he had written some of the classics in the field until April of 1985, when I got accepted to Clarion. At that point, I read everything I could find by the writers who were going to teach me. Since AJ was going to be the first instructor, I started with him.
I read Rogue Moon. I had no idea it was a classic. In fact, I had no idea that science fiction had classics. Okay, let’s be honest. I had no idea that science fiction existed. All I knew was that I liked stories with outer space in them. I liked time travel stories. I liked stories about robots.
And I loved Rogue Moon.
I expected its author to be a slender, blond-headed man who spoke in a cultured East Coast accent and who intimidated the hell out of me. I turned out to be right about the intimidation. As nice as he was, AJ was a formidable man.
I later discovered I was right about the slender, blond man who had written Rogue Moon. When he wrote the book in the late 1950s, AJ had been quite the looker. But the man who walked into my Clarion class on that night in June was heavyset, breathing so heavily we all thought he was going to have a heart attack right there, and he was angry. Michigan State, where Clarion was held in them there days, was remodeling the graduate dorms where Clarion was usually housed. We were in a freshman dorm with no phone service, crappy rooms, and a lounge instead of a meeting room.
He was used to the amenities. We weren’t. So we didn’t understand why he was so upset. He battled the administration that whole week as well as got us on our feet as young writers. He laid the ground rules, he told stories, and he enchanted us. By the end of the week, we were all Budrys fans.
He came back in the middle with his lovely wife Edna, and cooked us all a spaghetti dinner. By then, we were jaded students who knew everything. He just smiled and went back to Chicago for another two weeks. He returned for the final weekend, and critiqued stories alongside Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm, teaching us by example that the professional writers (and editors and reviewers, which they all were) did not agree on what made a great story, although they all agreed on what made a bad story.
I figured that was all AJ would do to influence my life. We were sent away from Clarion to start our professional writing careers. I already had a professional writing career, but it was in non-fiction. Clarion made me decide that fiction writers could actually earn some money, and I was going to try.
I was in the process of trying the following April when AJ called me. He invited me to an experimental workshop in Taos, New Mexico, sponsored by Writers of the Future. I was not a winner of Writers of the Future. I never even made the finals. In my entire beginning writer career (even after this workshop), the best I did was an honorable mention.
Yet AJ was clear: he wanted me to be one of the 12 because, he said, I had a bright future. Little did we know how much he would influence that.
I managed to scrap together $1000 for plane flight, hotel, and food. That money should have gone to my divorce and the very expensive attorney I had just hired. Instead, it covered expenses (Writers of the Future covered the cost of the workshop).
I showed up in Albuquerque, spent a few days with my Clarion classmate, Sally Gwylan, and got another phone call from AJ. He said he’d arranged for another student to give me and Martha Soukup (yet another Clarion classmate) a ride to Taos.
The driver, along with two more writers, Lori Ann White and Jon Gustafson, showed up that Sunday morning. And cynical me, the woman who thought love at first sight was something made up for the movies, fell in love the moment the driver got out of the car.
That was Dean Wesley Smith. We’ve been together ever since.
AJ used to joke that he told Dean to pick me up–and Dean did. AJ encouraged the relationship when a lot of people were warning us away from each other. I don’t know if he saw what a combination we’d be or if he was just a romantic. But Dean and I owe him everything.
After Taos, we were on the guest list for many WoTF events. We went to the U.N. as speakers for a WoTF event; we got flown to LA several times for events. I went all over the country because AJ believed in us. Oddly the only piece I ever sold to WoTF was a non-fiction article I wrote in collaboration with Dean for one of the volumes. I was a guest instructor in Malibu one year. Me, AJ, and Orson Scott Card. They were the ones in charge; I was the gopher. I think this was 1988. And even though I heard AJ’s stories yet again, I learned a lot from them.
To me, he was a mentor, a teacher, and a great writer.
And then he became one of my writers. I think that was the strangest part of our relationship. I became editor of F&SF and inherited Algis Budrys, the respected book reviewer. He asked for editorial feedback, but there wasn’t much I could give him. He already knew so much more about writing/reviewing/fiction than I could imagine at that point.
We also worked together at Pulphouse. And when he took over Tomorrow Magazine, he resigned as F&SF‘s book reviewer. I think letting him do that was the biggest mistake I made as an editor. I missed him, but more importantly, the readers missed him. And while F&SF has great columnists, no one has ever been able to replace him.
He put his imprint on the field in so many ways–as a writer of classics, as a teacher, as an editor, and as a reviewer. He encouraged young writers. I think most of the influential writers in the field, as well as the influential editors, from 1970 or so on to about the year 2000, had AJ as a teacher or a mentor or a friend. Some pushed against him. Some embraced him.
But he influenced all of us.
Hard to believe he’s gone.