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.

Approaching the Page

Summers I'd spend whole afternoons on the porch and still be there in the evening when locust and cicada began calling, filling the yard, that blurred green universe, with their strumming cries. I'd drag out an old white rocker, stack my books on the floor alongside. It was a screen porch, and the best times were when it rained.

The books were likely to be a strange lot. Biographies of Houdini and Robert-Houdin and Chung Ling Soo, cheap editions of science fiction novels liberated from my brother's shelves, books on Shelley or Oscar Wilde, a copy of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction with a new story by Fritz Leiber, an issue of Fantastic Universe devoted to Stanley Weinbaum, astronomy and mineralogy texts, the Johnson Smith & Co. novelty catalog, a book promising to teach you to speak twelve languages including Esperanto. At the time I gave little thought to what I might be seeking in those books, just knew there was something in there I needed, something I had to have. When years later, in college, I encountered stories of specific hunger, women peeling wallpaper off the walls and eating it because it had nutrients they needed, I understood.

Across the street stretched an acre or so of close-set shacks, tarpaper and plywood mostly. Thousands of black folk lived there, and all my playmates. Helena had a tire factory, a chemical plant, the river itself: it drew people from all over. Struggling many years later with my first guitar, I'd learn that Robert Johnson had lived a mile or so down the road. Other Delta bluesmen, Johnny Shines, Muddy Waters, Roosevelt Sykes, passed through, on their way up to Memphis, perhaps, stopping off to play at The Blue Moon half a block down from Nick's Café, or over radio station KFFA. Sonny Boy Williamson records still were played on KFFA every day at noon, The King Biscuit Hour. As a young man my father had worked as a policeman. He told me how Sonny Boy's band would turn up on the road crew most Mondays. Sonny Boy'd gone off to London and been revered there, recorded with the Yardbirds. Came back home with a checkered suit and bowler hat and all these stories no one believed.

Meanwhile, from the drive-in restaurant clinging like a boat dock to the edge of my grandfather's property flowed a continuous current of music, Hank Williams and Hank Snow, Arthur Alexander, lots of Jamesmy Reed, often in pitched battle with the Mozart, Shostakovich and Mahler on my turntable. Other kids hummed Brian Hyland songs. I hummed Mozart horn concerti, nurturing the apartness that, even then, moved me towards being a writer.

My brother, now a philosopher, had gone to school with Harold Jenkins, later known as Conway Twitty. In one early poem, in London, I'd write:

    My brother John, round
    face at the edge of my bed, collaborations
    of parental persuasion. Now a man too,
    like the bowl of a pipe. A philosopher,
    teacher; wife and two daughters
    in far-off Pittsburgh.

Everything seemed to be about edges then. And everything, the entire wandering, ancient, ever-new world, seemed far-off. With books and voluminous correspondence, much as my father manipulated his duck call, hand opening and closing about the end the way my own, years later, would cup harmonicas, I brought that world in closer. I wrote to the editors of science fiction and magic magazines, to Willy Ley, to fellow teenagers taken with conjuring. One of my favorite correspondents attended military school and had, stored away in his garage at home, a complete stage illusion once the property of Howard Thurston. The local newspaper published my short stories whenever I sent them in. For a short time I served as editor of Zombie, a magic magazine published by and for teenagers, on the cover of which my geekish school picture appeared.

Almost a decade after, taking up again the habit of correspondence, I'd turn out reams of letters as I sat looking across Iowa cornfields listening to Sonny Boy Williamson, Paul Butterfield, Dylan. Some of these letters ran to twenty or thirty pages. It was in them that I taught myself to write. And it was there, RFD 3, that I sold my first stories, three of them all at once in a matter of weeks.

For months, neglecting classes in Modern British Novel and French 201, I had sat in the student union rereading Sturgeon, everything I could find, and writing in longhand these absolutely awful stories, leading to a suspicion I'd later pass along to students: that each of us seems to have a certain amount of garbage aboard, a quota of words we must write out before the good stuff starts coming.

Suddenly, it did start. Walking down the street one day I was startled by a man stepping from a doorway. I hurried along to the student union, sat, and began: Walking down the street on my way to see the Leech.... I put down Rilke's Letter to a Young Poet halfread to write my own futuristic version. I took the unspoken anger and ever-mounting resentment between my wife and self and forged them into a 6000-word psalm to silence, isolation and withdrawal: "A Few Last Words." The epigraph was from W.S. Merwin:

    What is the silence
    a. As though it had a right to more

The first few good poems came in a scatter then, too, but that great unfolding still lay ahead, in London, in a bedsitting room just off Portobello Road where often I'd write two or three poems a day and obsessively rewrite others -- as with the letters, teaching myself.

But it worked. I'd sneaked into literature through the back door, still the way I prefer to come and go.

The first books I read were science fiction and belonged to my brother, book club editions he'd bought for a dollar--Puppet Masters, which laid wide tire tracks across my imagination. Jerry Sohl's Costigan's Needle, various Van Vogts, Simak's Ring Around the Sun and Mission of Gravity, Bester's The Demolished Man. At the local library I had exhausted the children's section and, with my brother as spokesman, challenged the librarian, reading for her from a book taken at random off the shelf and receiving my adult card. Somewhere or another, probably on a visit to Memphis, I came across an issue of a magazine dedicated to Stanley Weinbaum which I read over and over, especially the biographical essay, and a British magazine titled Nebula, which listed the twenty top science fiction novels, books I'd for the most part never heard of, like George R. Stewart's Earth Abides, Tiger! Tiger! and Children of the Atom. Soon enough I'd searched down and read them all.

The taste for details of writers' lives by this time had taken hold; I was reading huge books on Shelley, Wilde, Poe, Thomas Wolfe. On a drugstore rack I came across James Ramsey Ullman's novel about Rimbaud, Day on Fire. This was the beginning of my fascination with French literature, an interest soon bolstered with a mass-market paperback of Baudelaire translations by Edna St. Vincent Millay and George Dillon, an anthology of French poetry, I think from Random House, containing translations by Merwin among others, and, finally, by Francis Steegmuller's Apollinaire biography. Not surprising that Rimbaud, the eternal adolescent, should become the first French poet with whom I, adolescent myself, should fall in love. Apollinaire became the second, engendering ideals of lyricism and poetic freedom that began to shape my own shabby work. He was also the first poet I translated.

    And now the cook's plucking geese.
    Ah, fall of snow
    falling, no
    girl for my arms.

Third, and perhaps the most influential of all, was Blaise Cendrars, in whose Prose du transsibérien et de la petite Jeanne de France I locate the beginning and very fount of modern poetry. Of all the world's poems, it is this one -- this inexhaustible poem defining both our era and the poet's responsibility as witness -- that speaks to me most directly.

    Et j'étais déjà si mauvais poète
    Que je ne savais pas aller jusqu'au bout

Powerful magic had found its way to me. I was like a child fed sweets for the first time, a primitive shaman given scalpels and bone saws. Why hadn't anyone told me? I was dangerous.

But I wasn't, of course.

I was only another writer, just another who found intolerable the notion there wasn't something more. Like a truffle-hunting pig I kept digging beneath. Beneath the gray of diurnal life, repetitive labor, the sucking mud of politics, stuccoed walls, tile floors and newspapers, TV newscasts.

Camus' invincible summer was under there somewhere. I'd find it.