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.

Repopulating Oz

I finally met him, this man who has been so much a constant and silent part of my life, two years ago, both of us in L.A. to attend writer's functions, though not the same one. He was sitting on a bench hunched above his cane, silver hair framing a large head, dressed in coat and tie and looking uncannily like Borges. He seemed legitimately pleased to see me. Sorrow at having failed to keep in touch overcame me.

Almost forty years ago, looking out from an Iowa farmhouse onto fields of corn and occasional sheep, walls lined with enough books to protect me from atomic fallout, I'd begun a correspondence with this gentle, brilliant, impish, sad man. I had just begun to write stories myself. A letter to him, saying how much his work had meant to me, brought a prompt and gracious response. At one point, when I asked about a rare mainstream novel he'd written, he sent a copy. Letters went back and forth for some time, like messages flashed with mirrors between unseen presences. Then, as we do so often in life, I let myself be swept away into dailyness, into my own concerns and career. My stories and poems had begun appearing in various literary and science-fiction publications. I sailed off to London, the Old World, to edit a magazine.

Many years before that, in Southern summers aswarm with mosquitoes and smelling of honeysuckle, I had sat on my porch or in the magical circle of light my room became at night reading stories of his. They were amazing things, unlike any others. "Open to Me, My Sister." The Lovers. Flesh. Dare. Each of them something new come into the world, something never before imagined, at once profoundly unsettling and curiously attracting. Often as I read I could feel heavy furniture being dragged across the floor of my mind. To reach escape velocity, we had to throw everything not absolutely essential overboard. There would be new styles of architecture, changes of heart. There would be new worlds.

"Mother," like all the tales collected in Strange Relations a disturbing excursion round the Cape of Reason on the Freudian ferry. A space traveller is adopted and cared for by an alien creature who accepts him into its very womb.

The Lovers, one of science fiction's seminal works, in which a man flees Earth's repressive society to study the language of another species, falling in love with a descendant of previous human visitors and pursuing that love to its tragic, horrific end.

"The Alley God," in which a Neanderthal lives on in a contemporary urban setting. (Do any of us ever feel we truly fit the world in which we find ourselves?)

Flesh. Stagg returns to Earth after 800 relative years in space only to find devastation and a reversion to pagan time. Antlers grafted to his head, transformed to a perishing god, he goes forth to be fruitful and multiply, knowing ritual slaughter waits at the end of his journey.

The Riverworld series, in which all of mankind has been resurrected along the banks of a seemingly endless river. Sir Richard Francis Burton (spokesperson for melancholy) and Mark Twain (arguably the great humorist) serve as our initial guides.

I've always had a fascination with writers who exist off the map as it were, plying their trade at society's obscure outposts. They're the true subversives, these authors of crime novels, tellers of tales of other worlds and other minds, these maverick poets: we have given into their keeping the very soul and imagination of our race.

When initially I read this griot, when later I reread and got to know him a little through our correspondence, only intrepid science fiction fans knew his work. Many of his books were out of print. For some time, from personal need, he had been forced to write books for whatever advances they might bring, hurriedly done space operas and adventures tales that issued from bottom-line paperback houses. This was long before science fiction had attracted critical interest or a broader readership. Even those early marvels, appearing in marginal magazines and from specialty publishers, lay fallow.

Still to come were Venus on the Half-shell, his biographies of Doc Savage and Tarzan/Lord Greystoke, the amazing Joycean pulp of "Riders of the Purple Wage," the all-encompassing universes of Riverworld and The World of Tiers, his essays into "pornography" with Image of the Beast, Blown and A Feast Unknown.

As I write, we've just passed the fiftieth anniversary of publication of The Lovers. Last year, Philip José Farmer received both a Nebula as Grand Master and a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement.


I am 20 years old, standing in the entryway beside bay windows that scant years ago would have displayed wares for sale, shoes, perhaps, or linen. They're now empty as, two stories up, Jane gets tested for pregnancy. We've been dating for months. "Definitely something there," her OB says. Thirty years later our son will come home full of resolve from a visit to friends in another city. It seems he is doing well. The next day he'll make his way into the garage, run a hose from the exhaust of his mother's car to the cab and around 7 A.M. EST he'll die. I've brought along The Lovers in its original Ballantine printing. Leaning against the beveled glass door, waiting in the sodden New Orleans morning for Jane to come down with her news, I reread it.


Farmer's is truly an astonishing body of work. For half a century he has gone on turning out story after story, book after book, each of them seeming (as Philip K. Dick once said of his own) to have been lit off the smoldering butt of the last. An exemplar of the professional writer, spinning out stories, shipping them out to market, he retains as well that sense of the amateur, of a man pursuing an activity from sheer love of it. He's also an exemplar of the fecund variety of fantasy and science fiction.

Adventure stories? Some of the best. New novels of Tarzan, Oz and Burroughs-like science fiction. Avant-garde, literary writing? "Riders of the Purple Wage." Investigations of sexuality? Those early stories, the pornography, Flesh. Explorations of myth? Flesh again, The Green Odyssey, or the Father John Carmody stories. Satire? The World of Tiers, worthy of Jonathan Swift. The afterlife, the natural history of the soul? Traitor to the Living, Inside Outside. Comedy? Venus on the Half-shell, "Don't Wash the Carats." Extrapolation? Tongues of the Moon, or, again, "Riders of the Purple Wage."

Not to mention sheer invention. Many single novels are sufficiently chockful of ideas, twists, doomsday machines, Rube Goldberg contraptions, plots and subplots as to have provided most other writers substance enough for four or five.

Phil Farmer is a storyteller, yes, a natural one. But like that of most writers of fantastic literature, whatever name they give it, science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, Farmer's interest is not in documenting an historical moment, bearing witness to the forms of his time. He wants something more, wants to break out of those forms: he wants, by examining and recreating myth, to do nothing less than define man's place in the universe. There are worlds, he tells us, behind and beside the visible, sensible one.

I don't wish to come to too facile an end here, but I wonder. If my son had had something of that belief, might he have endured longer? Might the world in which he found himself not finally have proved, as it did, at the same time too much and too little for him?