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Introduction: The James Sallis Reader


When I look back, I remember long summer afternoons on the screened-in porch with colorful spun-aluminum tumblers of Kool-Aid or pre-sweetened iced tea and books. Biographies of Houdini and of Shelley, The Winter of Our Discontent, loads of Heinlein, Fires of Spring, a slick-size science fiction magazine devoted to Stanley Weinbaum, Richard Matheson's Third from the Sun, the latest issue of If or F&SF, much of Dickens, all of Thomas Wolfe.

I don't know when, precisely, the decision got made. But move along a very few years, past New Orleans and Tulane dorms where I wrote the first of many bad poems, and find me staring out at the darkness thats been thrown like a hood over neighboring Midwest cornfields as, crouched above a Remington Quietriter given periodically to tossing the heads of keys across the room when struck, I type, nearing the end of my first published story: He's giving me the eye, so I take it and put it in my wallet right next to the finger someone gave me the day before. It's well past midnight, all are asleep, and likely as not there's Sonny Boy Williamson playing on the phonograph or, if the radio's on instead, maybe Buffalo Springfield. Something's happening here, What it is ain't exactly clear.

Then, I listened to news of Vietnam.  Writing this introduction, with much the same horror and shame, daily I am inundated by tales of Bush & Co.'s invasion of Iraq.

Skip a couple years past corn and kazoos and it's a window off Portobello Road in London that I'm looking out. A BBC version of Inherit the Wind, Donovan songs and Mrs. Robinson play on the transistor radio on my desk, its speaker the size of a British penny.  Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy go down while I'm there. Often, hearing of new deaths, new deceits, I turn off my desk lamp and sit motionless in the dark, taking what comfort I can from the low, steady hum of the Quietriter's tiny engine.

Next our rented, Charles Addam-like house in Milford, an apartment on 12th in the Village, the dexter half of a duplex up flight after flight of terrace stairs in Brookline, Massachusetts.  One morning coming home on the streetcar I buy the Boston Globe and open it to find a review of my first book.

These days, I write for the Globe.

As I say, just when the decision got made, I don't know, but by the time I was 20 or so it had become fairly obvious that I was going to be a writer. It was also fairly obvious that, marked by my taste for fantastic literature, I was not, at least not always, going to be a realist writer. I would face the events of my day, the events that battered at me, body counts, the end of relationships, corrupt administrations, my son's suicide, the overthrow of other nations by subterfuge or brute might, not head-on but slantwise.

Renderings, for instance, the short novel included here. I'm not certain how much its description of a ruined and dying world has directly to do with what was taking place in southeast Asia when I first conceived it, or with my own failing marriage. Quite a lot, I suspect. One critic believes Renderings — written in the summer that produced The Long-Legged Fly as well as half a dozen strong stories and a goodly clutch of poems — to be central to my work. As for realism: about my house, Renderings has become something of a watershed, with me resolutely insisting that the story's events actually take place, that it's a science fiction novel, while my wife holds that they occur only in the protagonist's imagination.

As a Southerner, I come from a culture whose coarse grain in my youth remained unground to meal on the great American millstone. I grew up eating pig's tails, salt pork and squirrel with brown gravy; and all about me, civility, the single force that more than any other binds civilization, was bespoke in such gestures as standing when elders or women entered the room. It was a culture that in many ways exalted the individual and the peculiar. My first girlfriend had an uncle, quite mad, shambling about the house and carrying on imaginary conversations in corners. As a child I played exclusively with African-American children, the generations of whose parents had survived by dissembling. Why then should it seem strange that I came to speak slantwise about precisely those things most important to me?

The work herein documents forty years of a man sitting alone in a room. You'll find poems both of mimetic and of fantastic bent, science fiction stories, realist stories, essays on literature, and personal essays, along with two novels in their entirety, one a spy novel, the other (depending upon whether you accept my wife's reading or mine) a fantasy or science fiction novel.  The single notable omission is my writing on music, for which there was simply not room. Those interested should seek out the recent University of Nebraska Press edition of The Guitar Players.

A friend has suggested that it all comes of not being able to decide what I want to be when I grow up, another from the simple fact that, if you keep moving, they can't get a bead on you. At literary gatherings, asked about influences, I'm as likely to cite science fiction and horror movies of the Fifties as I am James Joyce or Albert Camus. For many, many years, no matter what I wrote at the time, I thought of myself as primarily a poet. In recent years a major portion of my income derives from, and hence larger segments of my writing time are given over to, reviews and criticism.  While for a long, long time now, whatever other projects might be underway, there's always been, sitting in the driveway with parts scattered about, the half-built hulk of a novel.

Think of this Reader as a personal storage shed: priceless souvenirs, mysteriously full boxes, and chairs missing a leg, all in a jumble.

Recently, having decided I don't have enough to do with a book or two to write each year and reviews and columns forever on deadline (maybe this is what I'll be when I grow up?) I began teaching. Two or three days a week I stand there trying to define for my students just what it is a writer does, and how.

One night after a phone conversation with her parents, I tell them, Karyn mentioned that they'd been to see a stage version of Little Shop of Horrors, and that the theater had paid $3000 to rent an Audrey. She went on, but I hardly heard what more she said: I was off the block, head spinning with scene after scene about a store that rents Audreys.  ("Hey, Margie, that stalk look okay to you?")

Or I tell them about the morning I saw in the newspaper a reference to someone's diary and sat there for long moments imagining a woman who when young saves up to buy a costly, finely-bound notebook in which to record her life. It goes with her everywhere, city to city, apartment to house to hospital to nursing home, always the first thing she unpacks. Long years after, she dies, and her daughter opens the notebook only to find that her mother has never made a single entry. The pages are blank.

That's what writers do, I say to students.  We don't listen to our spouses, because we're too busy making up stories, or trying to overhear the conversation at the next table. We see the word diary and a whole life, a whole world, drops into our heads.

I suspect that they want secrets, my students, but this is the only secret I have to give them: You never learn how to do it. You only learn that you can. And you learn that again and again, every time.

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