The Week that Was

Sorry I didn’t write more last week, dear readers. Last Sunday evening, I had to pick up my dad at Newark Airport, but his flight was delayed an hour or so, and my ensuing late arrival at home led to a short night of sleep heading into Monday (we get up at 5am to start the day). That sequence left me off-kilter for the rest of the week. Since most of my work-days were spent working on my conference and trying to write code for the web-edition of our Top Companies ish, I never got settled enough to start a-writin’.

If you’re interested in the highlights — brunch with a semi-famous author, a shoot-from-the-hip panel discussion at a media relations class, and a fancy dinner that led to the final-straw decision to buy a GPS unit — then click “More”!

Sunday, I had brunch with one of my pals, Samuel Delany, at a Portuguese restaurant on Amsterdam Ave., Luzia’s. Chip & I have known each other for 10 years, during which time we morphed from author & publisher to friends. Sunday was the first time in years that it was just the two of us, sans S.O.s and other friends, having a meal and shooting the breeze. The weather was lovely, so I took a sidewalk table and let the upper west side amble by as we chatter.

Our main topic of conversation was the author Thomas Disch, who had killed himself on July 4th. I knew that Disch and Chip had a history and had suffered a significant falling out. In 2000, I published a collection of Delany’s letters, centered on 1984, and there are two passages about their relationship (he gets mentioned a third time, but only in a mention of having him and John Brunner over for scrod):

From a letter to Camilla Decarnin, Sept. 1, 1984:

Tom Disch loved Dhalgren and saw it through a couple of its middle drafts, and offered advice, and was endlessly encouraging and supportive about it. But when he read Triton in manuscript he told me: “Chip, I’ve read the book — and pretty carefully, I think; and I have no idea what it’s about, or any concept of why you would want to write it.” To him, after Dhalgren, it seemed like a return to SF at its silliest and most trivial; and he’s been unable to read anything I’ve written since (unless it’s about him). And when Bantam sent him (not at my suggestion, either) one of the Nevèrÿon manuscripts, he told me in effect that if we were to remain any kind of friends, I must not give him any more of my stuff to read. He just couldn’t read my work anymore and being asked to upset him too much.

Of course the Nevèrÿon manuscript was a few years after another incident.

This was in the first two years Frank and I were together. I was writing Tales of Nevèrÿon, trying to decide whether I could still write fiction at all or not, after the two-year halt that followed Triton. Tom and Charles invited me to their house for dinner to meet a friend, a black, gay nuclear physicist at Columbia University named Tony, who was a great fan of mine, they said, and very anxious to meet me. When Tom extended the invitation, I told him, “He sounds very nice, Tom. But, really, right through here, it would probably be a very uncomfortable dinner, just for me. I’m just not up to meeting an admirer right now.” To which Tom replied, rather shamefacedly, “Well, I’m afraid, Chip, that I went out on a limb and already promised you to him. I wish you’d come just as a personal favor.” Tony indeed proved to be very nice, but all through the evening Charles kept making the oddest and most discomforting innuendoes and, when I finally asked him what was going on, turned on me directly and attacked me for two hours straight — while Tom and Tony defended me.

Synopsized from the two hours, Charles’s three criticisms were, one: By mentioning Marilyn’s NBA [the National Book Award won in 1975 by Chip’s wife Marilyn Hacker for her poetry book, Presentation Piece] in the brief author’s biographies at the end of my books, I was trading off of her reputation — especially since I was now living with Frank. (Though we’d separated in January ’75, M. and I were not officially divorced until ’79 or ’80.) Two, by mentioning wife and daughter in the same bios, I was fooling readers into thinking I was straight. And, third, I did not like him and had no respect for him as a writer.

The first two were unintentional, and I’d already tried to do something about them, and would continue to, I told him. The third, as I explained in a phone call the next day, was just patently untrue. I’d always considered him a friend and had great respect for his writing talents. He told me: “I don’t like any of your work, Chip, except The Einstein Intersection. You know it. It’s perfectly understandable. That’s probably why you don’t like me. I think you think Tom is a good writer, but you just think I’m a silly little proofreader.” (Proofreading was how Charles earned most of his living.)

“Charles,” I said, “the truth is, I’ve always thought that, sentence for sentence, you were a more skillful writer than Tom. And I’ve always been confused, and sometimes worried, that you weren’t writing more. You get very uncomfortable when someone asks you about your writing. So I’ve learned, in twelve years, not to do it. But I’ve always asked Tom about your work, because I was sincerely interested. And no six months has gone by when I haven’t urged Tom to make it easier for you to write — and I’m sure he’s told you that — simply because the things you’ve written have given me great pleasure.”

“He has,” he said. “But I think you were lying.” He said a great many other very ugly things that, while they didn’t particularly bother me (they were so off-the-wall), I’m sure an hour later made him feel dreadfully uncomfortable, even if he believed them, because he’s a sensitive man.

Well, on the receipt of a letter I sent him the next day, saying I did consider him a friend, and I was open to friendly relations whenever he felt he could have them, he decided to sever all relations with me. And although my friendship goes on with Tom, I haven’t seen Charles since, save at Joan Thurston’s funeral, where, even to my hello, he refused to speak and simply walked away. Tom has told me since that he thought, with my letter, I was trying to bully him (!) into liking me. But he also refuses to come to any social function where I’m going to be. And before and after, over the last half dozen years, he’s accused Charles Platt, and David Hartwell, and Gregory Sandow, and Jerry Mundus, and Barbara Wise of similar lying — and will see none of us anymore!

Though Tom continues to be friendly with us all.

Yet for all its neurotic aspect, I did (and still do) take Charles’ criticisms seriously.

From a letter to Robert S. Bravard, Sept. 25, 1984:

While [Marilyn Hacker] was in England (in June, with Iva), she told me, she developed a number of new poetic enthusiasms, including an Irish woman poet named Eavan Boland, as well as several others, male and female, whose names escape me this morning. Also, she and Tom Disch are in the midst of an interesting (?) poetic folderol. Tom published a long poem in the July Poetry called “Working on a Tan.” In it, there’s a reference to a female friend who’s spent “the last three summers subsidized.” (“How can she stand another day at McDowell?” the poem asks. Then goes on to say, “Do I smell sour grapes?”) Nevertheless, M. took minor offense, and shot off a poem to Tom which, in my humble opinion, was mostly metered grumblings — sort of the modern equivalent of Robert Southey’s moralistic homilies, only gone feminist — for the first seven (?) quatrains. The last few rise, however, to true wit. Tom answered with an equally witty letter.

And now he has found some editor who wants to publish the whole exchange; M. has been invited to have the last word.

My own advice to her was to cut the first few stanzas of her own poem and cover the same material in a letter, of whatever degree of seriousness, following Tom’s. But she likes her poem and doesn’t like my advice. So I let it ride.

At any rate, I don’t know where it’ll all go.

Now we know. I met Disch once at a Readercon (probably 2001 or ‘02). We were introduced by Eric Solstein, the guy with whom I co-produced a documentary/reading performance about Chip. Eric said, “Tom, this is Gil Roth. He runs Voyant Publishing. He published a collection of Chip Delany’s letters.”

Disch, who was seated at a table, looked up at Eric and replied, “Delany? I . . . hate him.”

I smiled, shook his hand, and walked off while Tom & Eric talked. Almost 20 years ago — in fact, before I began keeping my list of all the books I’ve read — I read Disch’s best-known novel, Camp Concentration. I don’t remember too much about it, so I’ve ordered another copy from Amazon.

At brunch, I asked Chip when he and Disch had fallen out, since things got so ugly with Charles in 1984. It turned out that they’d stayed friends another 7 years or so, before some sorta blowup; Chip’s description of it made Disch sound as paranoid and irrational as Charles.

Over the next hour, Chip proceeded to fill me in on some legendary stories of Disch’s career-busting self-sabotage. I promised him I wouldn’t publish them on the site, but trust me: you’d be amazed at the lengths people can go to blow up their own careers.

I don’t mean to make light of Disch’s death, since he must’ve been living with an extraordinary despair to make the final decision he made. Here are a couple of eulogies about him (Clute, Hand); his work was respected by a significant number of writers, even if his personality was a bit prickly.

Don’t fret: our conversation wasn’t all doom & despair. Once we’d finished talking about Disch, Chip & I moved onto the state of publishing. And, sure THAT was all doom & despair, but it gave me the opportunity to show him my Kindle e-reader, which made Mr. Science Fiction Visionary just about lose his mind. Chip was amazed at the device, and asked for some usage details about it for a story he’s writing. I showed him how to get to Amazon’s e-book store through the device.

Since the author Junot Diaz came up earlier in our conversation, and Chip had mentioned that Diaz’s book of short stories, “Drown,” was “the best collection of stories since Dubliners,” I said, “Hey! Let’s buy Drown!” I selected it from the Kindle store, waited 30 seconds for it to download, and then showed him the book.

He laughed, saying, “Oh, this is really too much!”

I said, “We live in the future! Things just keep getting more awesome and more common! Isn’t it great?”

He concurred that it is great, even though he says he’s happy that his books aren’t available through the Kindle store. When I told him that my early experience with the Kindle involved reading a bunch of (public domain) works by Joseph Conrad, he tsk-ed me when he learned that I hadn’t dared read Nostromo yet.

So now I have (late-)summer reading assignments: Camp Concentration and Nostromo.

* * *

If it’s Monday, it must be NYU! On Friday afternoon, a PR contact for one of my magazine’s advertisers e-mailed me an urgent plea to fill in as a panelist for a NYU media relations graduate class. We hadn’t met face-to-face, so I warned him that my conversational style tends to, um, ramble a bit, dipping into shorthand and irreverence. He said that’d be perfect for the panel, so I consented.

Since the event started at 6pm at a classroom on 42nd St. by Bryant Park (bet. 5th & 6th Aves.), I left work at 4pm, ferried over to NYC, and took a shuttle-bus through Times Square at rush hour during the start of MLB All-Star festivities. Since I was running on fumes all day, this actually led to my gaining a second wind.

Snacking at Pret a Manger in the lobby of my destination, I saw several people with “Jews for Jesus” T-shirts on, and I wondered if there are any other mix-and-match of religions & messianic figures wandering the streets, like “Christians for Allah” or “Muslims for Buddha.” I decided that my second wind was illusory and headed up to the classroom.

The class consisted of 14 women who were studying to advance (or begin) careers in public relations. As this was explained to me, I thought of saying, “I didn’t know people studied to get into PR. I thought PR was something people ended up doing.” But then I thought, “These people are paying good money for these courses, while none of my studies ever pertained directly to my job, so who am I to tell ‘em how to make it in this field?”

The panel consisted of three trade-magazine editors, but we all had different publishing models and editorial needs; I thought it was pretty impressive that the PR firm managed to get that much variety when they could easily have gotten three editors who all worked in the same fashion and had too much in common to generate much conversation.

The first question we were asked was, “What is the one thing you’d tell PR people to make their job and your easier?”

We all had the same two answers to that one: “Know something about our magazines before contacting us. And please don’t call us on the phone to ‘make sure we got’ that e-mail you sent yesterday.”

This led into a discussion about how the phone is the editor’s nemesis, followed by my admission that I have hung up on PR people in the middle of a pitch. I haven’t done it lately, and I didn’t do it often, but when I’m working really hard on producing pages, the last thing I need is a phone call that sounds like a scripted pitch about a company that has virtually no connection to my magazine’s coverage.

Near the end of the 80-minute conversation, I discovered that one of the students was irate at the idea that I would hang up on a PR rep. She asked, “If we need you, and you need us, then why shouldn’t we just hang up on you?”

I told her, “Honestly? I don’t give a crap. You can’t imagine how many pitches I get by e-mail and phone on a daily basis, and how few of them actually have anything to do with my magazine. You also can’t imagine how many big companies don’t bother to return my calls. I’m not telling you that every editor is a titanic douchebag like I am, but I am telling you that every blind call you make might be to an editor who’s a titanic douchebag.”

In between, the conversation was much more pleasant, as I recall. We gave anecdotes that went into the nuts-and-bolts of what we do, so that the prospective PR reps got a better idea of how to approach us with ideas. At one point, we were asked about the best pitch we’d ever received. I admitted that mine came in just a few days earlier: “The marketing manager of one of our advertisers e-mailed me to say, ‘We watched you drink five gin & tonics during our dinner at the BIO show last month, so we deserve to get a short article on regulatory affairs issues between U.S. and EU submissions in your September issue!’ I wrote back, ‘That makes no sense, but I agree!’”

One of the execs who organized the panel said, “We need to party with YOU at our next trade show!”

“And that’s why relationships are important in this biz,” I announced.

A lot of the conversation covered issues specific to our industries, so I won’t bore you any more than I already have. But the first hour was videotaped by the PR firm that set up the panel, so if that ever goes online, I’ll post a link.

After the panel, I headed home. Since traffic in Times Square is horrible, I started walking back to the ferry, which is on 12th Ave. It was a hot day, and I was dressed somewhat respectably for the panel — a jacket and dress shirt — so I picked up a taxi at the Port Authority for the last few avenue blocks. There was a 15-minute wait for the ferry, but it couldn’t have come at a better time.

There are 5 more of these; click through the pic for the set.

* * *

One of my pals, Sam, was in the area on business this week. Last Labor Day weekend, Amy & I visited Toronto and had a great dinner at Rain with Sam & his wife, so we took him out to Cafe Matisse on Wednesday, the one night he had free.

The evening was a logistical mess: I was driving in, Amy was taking the train out from NYC, and Sam was getting a cab from his hotel near Newark Airport. Scarily, the 16-mile fare from the hotel to the restaurant was SIXTY-FIVE DOLLARS, which is a sign of how over-a-barrel you can be when you stay in an airport hotel.

We’d decided in advance that, even though we might talk business during dinner, we wouldn’t expense the meal to our companies; Sam’s just starting out at a new company, and I didn’t want my boss to get mad that we didn’t invite him along. So I told Sam that we’d drive him back to the hotel after dinner, to save him another insane cab-fare. But since Sam was taking a late afternoon train up from Philadelphia, our reservations were for 8pm, guaranteeing a late night (by my standards).

All that went out the window once we started dinner. The meal and service, as usual, were fantastic. Matisse serves a “grazing” menu: larger than appetizers, smaller than entrees. Because you’re all curious, here’s what we ordered:

ME

  1. Seared Scallop and Foie Gras with Carmelized Pineapple Upside Down Cake, Green Onions, Dollop of Date Cherry Ginger Jam, Savory Pine Colada Sauce Dusted with Toasted Coconut
  2. I don’t even remember; I sure wish I’d written up this meal the day after.
  3. Swordfish Stacked Taco (Center Cut Medallion), Layered with Black Beans, Roasted Tomato, Fontina Cheese, Guacamole and Chiffonade of Baby Arugula Drizzled with Smoked Tasso Ham Creme, Topped with Pan Roasted Peppers and Cilantro with Dollop of Lime Creme Fraiche

SAM

  1. Seared Scallop
  2. Seared Chilean Sea Bass Medallion, Fried Green Tomato and Crabmeat Cilantro Relish Topped with Avocado Tomatillo Salsa, Lemon Confit, Sweet Balsamic Reduction and Green Chili Vinaigrette
  3. Braised Orange Spiced Shortribs and Sautéed Soft Shell Crab with Scallion Pancake, Confit of Potato, Apple Ginger Slaw and Peppered Honey Demi and Savory Orange Drizzle

AMY

  1. Seared Scallop
  2. Peppercorn Dusted Swordfish Loin with Cornmeal Crusted Oysters, Pineapple Mustard Glazed Shrimp, Oven Dried Pineapple, Bok Choy, Celeriac Puree, Fermented Black Bean Vinegar and Sweet Soy Syrup
  3. Panko Crusted Crab Cake with Chipotle Cheddar Shrimp with Black Bean Corn Pepper Salsa, Lime Cilantro Jus and Chipotle Syrup

Sam is still dreaming about those shortribs; he did a better job of cleaning his plate than Rufus does when we leave a dish on the coffeetable and turn away for a second. We’ve been to Matisse at least half a dozen times, but this was the first meal we had in the courtyard behind the dining room proper.

The adventure came after dinner, when we had to get Sam back down to his hotel. I won’t list all the wrong turns and terrible highway signs that were involved, but suffice to say that the drive was about 25 minutes longer than it needed to be, leading to our 12:30am arrival at home. I really need to get a GPS unit for the car.

The next day, one of my favorite pharma-bloggers ran a story about how Pfizer’s head of HR has been taking a helicopter from her home in Maryland to Manhattan offices. Faced with having to disclose this info in its financial statements at a time when Pfizer is engaged in mass layoffs and cost cuts, the company decided instead to give her a bill. For $300,000. So maybe a $65 cab fare to a great restaurant isn’t SO bad.

* * *

So those were the highlights of the week. I spent way too much time driving, but I had some great meals and great conversation, and may have left a generation of PR reps afraid to call me.

6 Replies to “The Week that Was”

  1. Giving that kind of straight-up advice to college students is a great, great service. They should be writing you effusive thank-you notes and sending you chocolates.

  2. Wisht I’d known you were in NYC Friday evening – I was sitting on the waterfront at 44th at an outdoor bar on Pier 84 watching that gorgeous sunset along with several friends including Jon Coffelt, the artist whose show in Chelsea I made you go to with me about 5 years ago, the night of A. Tax’s birthday, I think.

  3. Never mind.

    It’s all due to the lingering hangover from a big night out last Thursday with a college friend who is now a hotshot in the music industry and invented the download, or so I’ve decided to tell everyone. It may not have been 5 G&Ts, but 3 Johnny Walker Blues (at $35 a pop!), a Maker’s on the rocks, and a shot from the bartender because he liked us did not sit well on top of the drinks from dinner. I’m still not right – too old for all this.

  4. I was fiddling, trying to find a way to write a thank you note to Samuel Delany, not really expecting to find one…and noticed your blog. I envy you your cafe companions…!

    My book, Skin Hunger, was a NBA finalist in 2007 in the Young Adult Literature category. It’s a sociological fantasy. I just wanted to thank Samuel for his work, his big, wonderful brain, and the inspiration he provides for writers. I know he has heard it a thousand times, but if you happen to think of it, please relay my thanks to him.

    kathleen

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