Jack Dann: ‘What? Me? Compulsive?!’

‘What? Me? Compulsive?!’

by Jack Dann

Anyone who has spent any time with professional writers will undoubtedly recognize their utter lack of compulsivity. The very idea that once we actually start a project, we’re like a dog with a bone…well that’s just a myth perpetrated by—

Okay, so maybe all of the above is a small exaggeration, and we are compulsive as hell. So what if we appear laid-back, somewhat bedraggled, and devil-may-care; so what if we sleep all day and work all night; so what if we procrastinate for hours, days, and weeks and watch more movies than Roger Ebert of the Chicago-Sun Times or read more books than Charles Van Doren? So what if we eat popcorn for breakfast?

We’re creative.

We need time to daydream if we’re to get the hard work done.

Of course we also rationalize and lie for a living.

Well, I don’t; but then I’m the exception to the rule…although, come to think of it, I did recently read twenty-one novels by Patrick O’Brian in one go. (I did, however, take time out for food, sleep, and the obligatory brushing of the teeth.)

And now, once again, I’m engaging in what some might consider compulsive behavior: I’m reading (or rereading) all of Annie McCaffrey’s Pern novels, one book after another. As of the time of this writing, I’ve read twenty in the Chronicles of Pern series; and I’m still going!

They are wonderful books and reading them now is my way of holding onto Annie for just a little bit longer.

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Dim the lights.

Change the mood.

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Anne McCaffrey passed away last November. She was a friend, role-model, mentor, and a force of nature. As I wrote in the January 2012 issue of Locus Magazine:

Impossible. Annie’s gone. Just like that. A page turned. A whisper, a yearning, the thunderous tearing of memory, and I can’t help but slide down the dark tunnels of recollection toward the squintingly bright light that was Anne McCaffrey.

Here is the place I land when I think of Annie.

Here…one last time, my dear friend. I’ve travelled back into youth when you were the very distillation of life and I was a young man you called “Tawny Lion”:

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It’s 1969. I’m twenty-four years old, and it is a warm, dry summer day, a wonderful day, full of sun and possibility. I am visiting Anne McCaffrey at her home in Sea Cliff, New York. She has a grand old Victorian house with a kitchen on the fourth floor and enough cats padding across the landings and up and down the stairs to satisfy even a cat lady. I’ve gotten lost in that house before.

I’m sitting in Annie’s tiny office on the first floor. Away from the noise. Paperbacks on narrowly spaced shelves cover the walls. The room is dark, almost mysterious, but secure. Anne sits behind her desk and looks at a row of books beside her. She stares hard at them, as if trying to think out the answer to a question. I imagine that if she finds the answer, she will never return to this tiny room again.

“These books are mine, Tawny Lion,” she says to me. “It’s as if every year is on this bookshelf. One day you’ll be counting the years of your life by the number of books you’ve written. And that’s what you end up with, a row of books, the years of your life.”
Although it’s a magical time of my life—everything bright and compacted—Annie has just come through a bad marriage. She is a tall, large-boned woman with a shock of white hair. She’s Irish and used to be an opera singer. She always seems to know when I’m in need of a home cooked meal and some positive reinforcement. She is also the secretary of the Science Fiction Writers of America, an organization I’ve just joined.

I’m living in Brooklyn, New York, and trying to write and go to St. John’s Law School at the same time.

I guess I’m in love with Anne McCaffrey.*

What makes these novels of Annie’s such compulsive reading? Certainly, their narrative drive; but that alone would not be enough to turn these books (starting with The White Dragon) into New York Times Bestsellers. For me, it’s Annie’s characters: they grow and learn and endure; they share their joy, bitterness, adventures, and grief with us; they become people we really know…people who come to inhabit our lives and memories. These novels are family sagas on amphetamines, for the time span encompassed by this series is some 2,500 years. This is solidly based science fiction, rigorously worked out, and yet these interlinked novels also magically tap deep into the fantasy genre: There be dragons (albeit bio-engineered) in these books!

Annie combined her deep understanding of love, joy, and loss with an unmatched sense of story, genre, and mythic adventure to create…life.

And so here I am, compulsively reading and living these novels.

I guess I’m just not ready to let Annie go quite yet.

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Jack Dann
21 March 2012
Windhover Farm, Victoria, Australia

Republished in Dark Matter issue 9 with permission from Jack Dann, reproduced here for ease of access for consideration for the Ditmar and Chronos Awards.