Essays on Writing and Life
by James Sallis

Never mind working without a net; living as a writer is like working without even the tightrope, learning to balance, suspended, in mid-air. That's the way James Sallis has lived for almost forty years, publishing a blizzard of novels, short stories, poems, essays, translations and biographies in everything from "Transatlantic Review" to "The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction." Two rules, he says. Put your butt in the chair. Don't look down.

Babe the Blue Ox, and Mike

"Sometimes I feel like Big Mama Thornton at an Elvis convention," Mike wrote me a few months back. We'd been talking about the thin stuff that all too often passes for literature these days, remembering our agendas and fond hopes back in the days of New Worlds. Everything -- perhaps because we were young, perhaps because of the era -- seemed possible then. Mike had come up by way of comics and pulps, cruising the still waters of commercial writing like a crocodile, half-submerged, half afloat. Shipwrecked at university, with three stories and perhaps a dozen poems published, I had seen footprints on the island: I knew I wasn't alone. One day in Milford, Pennsylvania, watching leaves come into focus on trees outside a kitchen window, I realized that Mike and I had just sat up all night talking. Three months later I arrived in London, poetry in my baggage, the American south in my blood. And Mike striding towards me in one of his many tailored suits, smiling.

With a start I realize that I've known and loved this man now for thirty-four or -five years. Only in youth, I suspect, do most of us have sufficient time and leisure to lay tracks upon which the engines of great friendships can make their way across continents, circumstance, years apart. Mike and I have found ourselves often and for lengthy periods out of touch; yet whenever we meet, it's as though no time has passed. The safeholds in which we keep all this packed away are well, truly, even brutally used: I have no hair, Mike walks with a cane, we both ease into our chairs. But quickly then we have the lid off the battered boxes, and what is inside has not changed.

From the first he's reminded me of some flamboyant 19th-century personage come calling, cloak left in the waiting room, latest novel stacked on the worktable back at his flat, proofs of another even now arriving from the printer. You hear him before you see him. He sweeps into the room on a tide of words and has for every topic summoned and everyone present the most intense attention. The world outside, and that pushing at the borders from within, are equally fascinating, perhaps in a most particular way indistinguishable.

All my letters from Mike, I find, are underlined. Every remark becomes a story, every observation a Wildean equation. There's the time as a teenager when he and a group of friends were invited to Arthur Clarke's birthday party and, seated in tidy rows before a projector, sat abjectly through ages of hazy pictures of Arthur, of his underwater plants, his pals, "until to our intense relief the whole contraption burst into flame." Or the day he introduced Clarke to William Burroughs only to recognize, with some astonishment, that they were "twin souls." Once, I recall, he referred to what the two of us have been doing all our lives, this deliberate mixing of genres and modes, as "playing Beethoven on a banjo. Because a banjo happens to be handy." No one's ever put it better.

Another time, speaking of New Worlds' brief heyday: "Remember when eager publishers thought we might have the map to El Dorado tattooed on our bottoms? At least I think that's what they were looking for."

Most directly I remember example upon example of Mike's charity. He was always ready with his checkbook, whether to help out a young writer, keep New Worlds afloat at great (and disastrous) personal expense, or to tide over a friend. Few of these financial investments, and few emotional ones, were ever repaid. When I developed an interest in Chandler, he showed up at my flat on Portobello Road with not only copies of the novels but a rare volume of letters as well. In conversation here in the States we spoke of Margery Allingham; a fortnight later, I would receive copies of her books from Mike's own library, as gifts. Jack Trevor Story? Mike sent a packet of wonderful, rare stuff. Gerald Kersh? The same.

That Mike is one of science fiction's great editors, few can argue. His influence upon the field was immense, summary. Someone said of jazz's watershed guitarist that there was guitar before Charlie Christian and guitar after Charlie Christian, and that they were virtually different instruments. That's Mike. He was central in hauling science fiction by its bootstraps (not without a certain amount of kicking, screaming and clutching at doorposts) to a new level; and despite the subsequent swing towards conservative, even recidivist, forms, the exploratory, consciously crafted writing that was Mike's and New Worlds' legacy, has endured. Science fiction practitioners today, whether or not they know Mike's work, whether or not they are aware of New Worlds, are exponentially better writers for his having been there. What is even less remarked but needs to be is his tremendous influence upon contemporary "mainstream" literature, upon whole generations of writers -- Tom Disch, myself, J.G. Ballard, D.M. Thomas, Peter Ackroyd, Martin Amis, Iain Sinclair -- given permission by Mike and by New Worlds, that grand failure, to write an utterly new kind of fiction.

With but a few exceptions, chief among them Mother London, without question a great and lasting novel, Mike's own fiction has been undervalued, in part because so much of his energy has gone into championing other's work above his own, in part, too, because he has turned out such a bewildering array of books, many of them self-admittedly hack work, written to keep self and (as often) other projects afloat. But in large part it's Mike's very facility that has confounded him.

While he no longer writes a book in three days (claiming to have seen the end coming when, some years back, books began taking four days), that facility remains everywhere and very much in evidence. Though certainly he can be that, Mike is not so much stylist as literary chameleon, dodging in and out of genres, styles, literary types and modes. Like Anthony Burgess, he is hopelessly, unforgivably, multilingually, fluent.

In short, a great original.

I remember with fondness a few weeks back around 1968, when Mike had developed a sudden taste for antique clocks. As he made his way daily down Portobello Road to my flat, he would pass the antique shops and each time, upon occasion each pass, one or another fine old timepiece would follow him home. They returned with him to take up residence on shelves, tables, window ledges and stacks of books in his crowded flat on Ladbroke Grove. Mike was then writing the first of the Jerry Cornelius stories. His overdraft had grown to such astonishing proportion that letters now came directly from the president of his bank, and Mike mused that, if things got much worse, he'd be invited to the man's club for lunch.

For a week or two then, Mike had somehow got onto poetry. He'd sit down at his little Olivetti and type poems straight out, and they were, from the first, extraordinary. He'd bring typescripts round to show me or Tom Disch, after which they'd join the clocks on one or another shelf, ledge or stack -- fondly forgotten.

I find that I keep returning here (led by Mike? Beethoven on banjo? Big Mama Thornton?) to music for my metaphors. Now I'm remembering what a critic said of another great original, George Jones: that all the stuff other singers had to work at, came naturally to Jones.


They were good poems, my friend. And those first stories were, as I told you at the time, like nothing that had come before them. I've learned so much from you. Not as much about writing, perhaps, as about what it is to go on being a writer, an artist, in this difficult world, year after unforgiving year. I have become in my own way, and you should be pleased at this, every bit as intransigent as you. And there is nothing in what has been a very full life, Mike, nothing more valuable to me than the time we've spent together and our friendship. Nothing.