Howard Waldrop, Upright & Writing
Five decades into his career, the brilliant science fiction writer still isn't taking any shortcuts
"Just sit down in the chair and start writing and then after 10 or 12 years you'll figure this stuff out."
– Howard Waldrop
His Reuben sandwich was falling apart, and the sauerkraut was landing in little mounds on the plate. "I'll grab you a fork," I offered, figuring that were I in his shoes I'd want one.
I lowered back down into my chair.
"I refuse to buckle until the very end," he said as he four-finger pinched a hill of kraut and popped it into his mouth. "You know when the British first started fighting scurvy at sea, the idea of limes and stuff hadn't come to them yet. So they used sauerkraut as the antiscorbutic.
"Ships reeked of kraut for like 50 years and stuff before they got limes," Howard Waldrop said through a straight-faced munch. "I'm using that in The Moone World [one of Waldrop's tales in progress] because they take sauerkraut to the moon with them to fight scurvy." I'd been soaking in Waldrop's work for a few weeks. I'd ordered his novels Them Bones and The Texas-Israeli War: 1999 (a collaboration with fellow science-fiction writer Jake Saunders), which can be found mostly in obscure bookshops in the Northwest. In the meantime, I'd been scouring libraries across town for collections of his writings. His brilliant short stories "Mary Margaret Road-Grader" and "The Ugly Chickens" had me high on how he bends reality while staying completely grounded in human nature. In those stories, unremarkable people adventure through fantastical scenarios where their physical and psychological worlds are woven together, often indistinguishable. The residual effects stayed with me for days. Great writing does that thing where you're reading along and then – POP! – you get socked with a sentence or paragraph so clean, words so perfectly chosen to relate to human experience, that you can only drop the book into your lap and recover. Waldrop's writing does that.
I'd asked him to lunch to talk about his stories and the five decades he's spent writing them. He sat across from me gazing thoughtfully over my right shoulder out onto Guadalupe. His shining powder-blue eyes seemed fixed on nothing in particular. He's the kind of writer who lives among us physically but mentally is either swimming in some future reality or wandering the past, searching for stories to tell. The present holds less interest for him, it seems to me. I stirred my tomato bisque and asked, as a writer of speculative fiction, had he ever envisioned the world as it is today?
"No, never did. In the 1970s, everyone referred to Southern California futures and Jersey futures. Jersey futures is where everybody lives in grubby apartments and they're all proletarians and go to work and pollution is bad and everything is falling apart. The Southern California future is the hedonistic future, right? You know, where we think everything will be better. I never thought things were going to get worse."
Waldrop's deep ties to Austin date back to the mid-Seventies, when he and a retinue of gifted science-fiction writers based here – among them Lisa Tuttle, Steve Utley, and Tom Reamy – founded the Turkey City Writer's Workshop. A haven for sci-fi writers, it helped birth and nurture the cyberpunk movement and is still active today.
Somewhat reluctant to talk about his childhood, Waldrop said he had lived "a typical poor white trash kid's life" in Weatherford, Texas. His parents, working two jobs apiece, would drop him and his sister off at the movie theatre, where they were babysat for hours by the ever-changing two-movie bill. "Film influenced me even more than books," he said. At age 4, his family had moved there from Houston, Miss., because the crops were failing. His dad was "losing his shorts out there" and had landed a job at Convair, an aircraft manufacturer. "My uncle drove us out here in a pickup truck with all our stuff packed up on the back like the Beverly Hillbillies."
I conjure an image of Waldrop as a kid sitting by a creek fishing, something he actually did do often. His body is that of a boy, but his face is the same as the one before me. I can't picture his boy face. I can't picture him thinking children's thoughts. His mind has probably always been as sophisticated and wildly creative as it is now in his 70s. My sense is that Howard has never been aware of exactly how aware he is.
He took a long swill of iced tea and flicked a kraut straggler off the table. It landed unnoticed by anyone but me on the leather loafer of the man at the table next to us who had been eavesdropping on our chat.
How much of your writing is autobiographical and is it irritating when people ask you that, I said, knowing I'd get the absolute truth about the second part.
"'The King of Where-I-Go' is the most autobiographical story in the Horse of a Different Color collection [a collection that Waldrop feels most closely reflects his writing style these days]. My writing is usually not autobiographical except in some tangential way."
Some people hide behind their writing while some use it to expose themselves. Where do you fit?
"Most people reading my writing think I'm like a buffoon, you know, blowing off my bazoo just by the writing. I don't use it to hide, but people reading it can probably figure out what I'm about. But I don't set out to do that. Most people write to show off. I write because I don't know anything else. In two years, it will be 50 years I've been at it. Like Ilka Chase said, 'Nobody wants to write; everybody wants to have written.'"
This is a thing with Waldrop. He's peeved by writers who want to take shortcuts. "There are no shortcuts. Every writer I've ever known who really did something has just sat down and wrote and wrote until it went somewhere."
At this, the man at the table next to us tucked his paper under his arm, got up, and left. He'd heard all he needed to. Waldrop gave no indication that he ever noticed the man at all. I'm fairly sure he was just doing his best to be present with me. I could see that what occupied his thoughts was not responding to my questions. What dominates his consciousness (all the time) is getting the story right.
Do you ever shock yourself with your own writing?
He wiped his mouth with a balled-up napkin. "Every writer will tell you that you'll be writing a story and a character will say something that you never thought about saying. As if the character suddenly made himself plain and understood. That's when I know I'm doing something right, but you can't plan it. The character starts speaking for himself in the story. I've rarely shocked myself, but I have written things I had never thought about. It happens occasionally. It's not mystical or anything."
We debated this. I insisted to Waldrop that I was sure he is mystical. He chuckled at the idea, but I wasn't trying to be funny. I'd read his stories and to whatever degree a human being can act as scribe for magical thinking Waldrop can and does.
He doesn't use a computer and never has. He doesn't use a cell phone and has just his landline. He writes the first draft of everything on a pad of paper and then types it up on a typewriter. "Howard, there's something very otherworldly about you," I said. He smiled and looked at me for a second before his eyes carried back to the comfortable place over my right shoulder.
Waldrop doesn't believe he's a mystic, but he does believe he can kill any publication just by letting them publish his work. "I sold my first story in 1969, but it wasn't published until 1972. Editor John Campbell [credited with shaping the Golden Age of science fiction] sat at a desk for 40 years, you know, and then he gets a story from me and drops dead," he joked, but not really. The look of a believer came across his face. "Through my whole career, I've had stories in the last issues of a dozen magazines and four/five hardcover anthologies." He admitted he's given stories away that he'd been asked to write just to avoid killing publications. "If you last long enough in this business, you know publications are going to die around you, and despite my efforts, I happened to be in the death issues."
Hot sunbeams tumbled through the windows of the New World Deli where we sat. Waldrop yawned and adjusted his aching body in the wooden chair.
"Are you going to write today?" I asked.
"Right now, I got a [story] problem I got to think through. I got to figure out how to make something work, and that can sometimes take a while." The Moone World has been on his desk for more than 10 years. Although he'd had ongoing struggles with his health, I doubted that that's what kept him from finishing the novel. His writing is not formulaic, so each story is absolutely unique. That kind of approach is time-consuming and emotionally taxing. Sometimes the only way to see your way through to the end is to spend years mulling it over while you act out life.
We sat in silence for a minute thinking through our problems.
"What do you want people to take away from your writing?" I asked, really thinking about what his writing had given me.
"I can sell 3,000 copies of anything I write. They're intelligent people and I'd rather have people like that reading stuff than other people picking it up and reading it and throwing it away, you know. Subtext being we need better human beings that we don't have right now."
In other words, Waldrop is content with his audience because he knows they get his work. He's a writer's writer.
Waldrop has various works in progress, one of which will be published in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet.
Just before we said goodbye, I asked him if he's happy and satisfied whatever that might mean.
"Well, I'm still upright. I can say that much."