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The Girl Who Heard Dragons
By McCaffrey, Anne
Tor Fantasy Copyright © 1995 McCaffrey, Anne
All right reserved.
I'm never sure what image readers construct of me from reading my books. But, generally, when I get a response of "You're Anne McCaffrey?" I haven't had the nerve to ask what they were expecting. Tones range from skepticism to deep disappointment and incredulity. Yet I do describe myself: "My hair is silver, my eyes are green, and I freckle. The rest is subject to change without notice"--the "rest" being the unrepentant bulk of me.
Fortunately, the faces of authors are not as widely displayed as those of more public celebrities. Often the jacket flap or the back copy includes a photo, formal or informal, of the author, which very few people ever connect to the person sitting next to them on an airplane or walking in a mall.
Once, on the shuttle from New York to Boston, I was recognized: I'd been on a Boston TV talk show that noon. I remember the show vividly, because during a commercial break I was sitting in the audience, waiting my turn, when Ethel Merman suddenly swept in. She was there to promote her autobiography. She did, and then swept out again. To my horror, I was beckoned to come on the set then.
I was still sort of in a trance (as I used to sing many of the songs that Ethel Merman had made popular) when the presenter asked me how I get such fantastic ideas.
"That's nowhere near as fantastic as following EthelMerman's act on this show," I replied, and got a laugh and applause.
About two hours later, as I was filing down the aisle of the shuttle, a girl tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was Anne McCaffrey.
"Oh, are you a fan?" I asked, pleased.
"No, I just thought I recognized you from the show with Ethel Merman."
Very early on in my career, I learned never to admit to seatmates on airplanes (particularly long-distance flights) that I write for a living.
That was a surefire way to be told in exhaustive detail their idea for a bestselling novel, invariably based on an autobiographical event. When asked directly what I do, I tend to vary between saying I'm 1) a potato farmer, 2) a horse breeder, and 3) going to visit my grandchildren. The latter generally silences all but the most garrulous. Who wants to be shown pictures or bored with tales of precocious offspring?
Twice, though, seatmates provided considerable gratification for me. In 1980, I was suffering from a heavy cold on a short hop from Melbourne to Sydney, Australia, and I had buried my head in the mammoth crossword puzzle I was doing. Having the window seat, I didn't pay much attention as the other passengers filed into our row.
When I did come up for a look, I was amazed to see the man next to me--mid-thirties, attractive, very elegantly dressed in fine gray flannel with a silk shirt and Countess Mara tie-- engrossed in a book with an extremely familiar cover. To Ride Pegasus. I waited until he was turning a page and then asked him in a sort of skeptical tone if the book was any good.
He looked up and replied that yes, it was good but then he enjoyed all this author's books.
"That's good," said I, "because you're sitting next to her!"
He introduced himself as David Ogilvy, the director of the Sydney Opera Company, on his way to direct Joan Sutherland in a concert version of Lucia di Lammermoor. We chattered quite amiably until the plane landed, but I count him as one of my more prestigious readers.
Every time I'm at Andromeda Book Shop in Birmingham, I'm asked to sign a book for Bob Monkhouse. "We must stop meeting like this!"
In April 1984, one of those remarkable zigzag air routes from New York to Alaska, I acquired two new seatmates in Dallas; a very pretty girl in the middle seat, and on the aisle a gangly guy, who immediately chattered her up. She was a beauty counselor on her way to Seattle, and he announced that he had just finished a first-aid course for helicopter pilots and was on his way back to Fairbanks, Alaska--my ultimate destination. I listened to their banter but didn't add anything.
When she left the plane at Seattle, I asked him about the weather in Fairbanks. He was quite civil, but he obviously wanted to get back to the book he was reading--which was an SF title. I asked him if he liked reading the genre, and he replied that he liked the hard science but fantasy bored him. Out of courtesy, he asked why I was on my way to Alaska, so I told him I was a potato farmer.
I spent a marvelous time as author in residence in Fairbanks, going dogsledding, eating moose-meat spaghetti, watching the aurora borealis, corrupting junior and senior high-school students and undergraduates at the University of Alaska--anyone I could get my hands on. I was there on my birthday, and the local bakery students whomped up an immense. White Dragon cake--enough for everyone in the Fairbanks Arts buffet. On the final Saturday, I was doing an autograph session in one of the malls, when in comes my airplane friend, arms loaded down with books, wife and daughters trailing after him. He stopped in front of my table and plopped down every book I had written, including the three Dell romances.
"You didn't tell me you were famous," he accused me.
"You didn't ask!"
Then there are those times at conventions when people don't yet realize that you're the Guest of Honor. I enjoy sitting at the registration table when my con schedule permits--and getting a charge out of reactions.
In Baltimore in 1977 (the year I discovered I had become a cult figure), I was sitting in the registration area when a woman, neatly dressed in a Villager shirtwaist dress, carrying two heavy Lord & Taylor shopping bags, advanced on the desk. She was not at all the type that you would expect would read SF. I though she might have got into the wrong hotel. She wanted to know if Anne McCaffrey was really speaking that day. I replied that she was. The woman asked at what time, so I told her (all this with two of the registration staff trying to keep their faces straight).
"Are you sure she's going to speak?"
"Oh, yes, I can vouch for it. She's here and she'll be speaking at two o'clock."
Only then would she pay for her day badge.
After my speech, the lady approached me again, still lugging her shopping bags. She gave me a sideways glance and then smiled.
"You fooled me." She upended the shopping bags to display all my novels, including the romances, and the magazines that had published my short stories.
"And you fooled me," I replied, pointing at the bags. We both had a chuckle.
I remember being asked if I knew Doris Pitkin Buck, who was in her seventies when I first met her at Milford, Pennsylvania, but who could write tales with intense and horrific insights into human nature or gentle and restorative tales. when I admitted to knowing her, the boy asked me how old she was.
"How old do you think she is?" I asked.
"Oh, early twenties." Obviously that was a considerable age to him.
"How ever did you guess?"
Well, why not? Doris wrote with a very young, romantic voice at times, and for the duration of those stories she was in her early twenties.
The identity dichotomy (the real versus the imaginary) started for me in the late 1960s, by the time of the Kent student massacre.
My son Alec, who started his career as a protestor at this point, asked permission to use the SFWA mimeograph machine to run off some flyers for a march to be held in Sea Cliff, Long Island, where we were living. Alec was bustling about my office, introducing his mother to the Columbia students who were joining in the march. One of them noticed the titles on the bookshelves.
"Hey, who reads science fiction?" one young man asked.
"My mother," Alec replied, because he was not totally convinced that he wanted a science-fiction author as his mother.
"Hey, why does your mother have four and five copies of Anne McCaffrey's books?" the boy wanted to know.
"Because she is Anne McCaffrey,r; Alec replied, exasperated.
"No shit!" was the admiring response.
I think that's when Alec realized that having an SF author as a mother was not altogether a bad hit.
Alec never has been much of a fiction reader anyhow, and certainly not as dedicated to science fiction as his brother, Todd. In fact, it wasn't until Alec was shamed by clients at the 100 Flowers Book Shop he managed in Cambridge that he finally read Dragonflight.
Now he takes great pride in my success and is diligent about reporting how my books are displayed at the local malls, and will always turn my titles out whenever he can.
A variant of that occurred the day I was looking for a copy of Todd's first published novel: Slammers Down, a Pathway adventure based on David Drake's military novels.
The B. Dalton store manager recognized me and came up proudly to point out their display of my titles.
"I'm looking for Todd Johnson's novel," I told him, and saw his bafflement. "He's my son, and it's his first!" I added, beaming like any fatuously proud mother. And I was.
"But you're Anne McCaffrey" was the manager's startled reply
"That doesn't keep me from being Todd Johnson's mother!"
Todd also had encounters with the doubting: well, it's understandable, since I reverted to my maiden name after my divorce. When Todd was doorman one evening in Lehigh's gymnasium, reading The White Dragon, which had just been published, one of the students noticed the title.
"Hey, is it any good?" he asked Todd.
"It's not bad," and Todd has always been scrupulously honest, "but there're a lot of typos."
"There are? Going to tell the publisher?"
"No, I'll tell Anne McCaffrey."
"How do you dare do that?"
"She's my mother."
"I find that hard to believe," the student replied, and stalked off.
As it happened, Decision at Doona, based on Todd's remarkable personality, was dedicated "to Todd Johnson, of course."
When I arrived at Lehigh in between conventions later that year, I signed all the copies of Decision in Lehigh's bookshop, adding "Yes, I AM his mother!"
When Todd joined the U.S. Army to serve Bouml;blingen, West Germany, he would haunt the post bookshop for new titles. He was somewhat surprised to find his captain searching for new SF releases. So they fell to talking about authors and new titles, and the captain picked up a copy of Moreta, recommending it to Todd, who demurred.
"Thanks, sir, but I've read it."
"It just came in."
I read it in manuscript.
"How'd you do that, Johnson?"
"She's my mother!"
(Again) "No shit!"
Having fans in useful places is a phenomenon that occurs when you least expect if, and most need it.
The best "for instance" was during my arduous 1979 White Dragon promotional tour--twenty-two cities in thirty-two days. By Toledo, Kansas, I had been on such an adrenaline high that I hadn't slept in five nights. My escort managed to get a doctor to sit next to me at a press luncheon--he was also a reader--and he prescribed a tranquilizer, which, indeed, reduced my stress. But, sadly, it did not help me get to sleep. By evening I had to travel on to Minneapolis and at 3.30 had still not managed to get any rest. I called the desk clerk to ask what to do in a medical emergency. He recommended a cab to the nearest hospital.
I was the only patient entering the emergency facility, so I was seen immediately and explained to the nurse who took the usual pulse, temperature, and blood-pressure readings what my problem was, showing her my daunting schedule. She left me in the cubicle to speak to the duty doctor. I could just hear her whisper, "Don't you know who she is?"
He may not have, but she did, and I got some sleeping pills--only, I suspect, because she knew I was "who I was," not just some middle-aged lady with travel fatigue. I went back to the hotel and had four hours of blessed unconsciousness.
Living in Ireland as I do has insulated me from having too many unexpected visitors, although it's amazing how many people will go to the trouble to "find" Dragonhold while touring Ireland. I prefer it when people phone me in advance--so at least I can pick up the comfortable clutter in the living room and be sure there are enough cookies to serve with coffee or tea.
I remember one young man who arrived just as a fractious mare had jumped out of the exercise paddock and was racing down to the road. He had the good sense to hold up both arms and scare her into turning. He'd arrived on a very "Dragonhold" day--the sort when everything goes obliquely wrong!
It is a given that the visitors you'd like to have stay on and join you in a meal insist on leaving after an hour. The ones who bore you stupid are those who hang on and on and on. Fortunately my sister-in-law, Sara Brooks, who now lives with me, recognizes the symptoms and is always jane on the spot with an excuse for me.
I did have a very intense interview with a girl who insisted that there had to be religion on Pern. There was no way, in her lexicon, that the colony could have been established without religion. I told her in very certain tones and terms that Pern was my world and I could do with it what I wanted. I wanted it not to have religion, considering the crimes committed in the name of one deity or another. There are some people you just don't argue with. On cue, Sis "reminded" me that my accountant was arriving soon and I'd better assembly my files for him.
Then there are the earnest interviewers, some of them very young. Because there had recently been some bloopers in articles about me--the kind of mistakes and misrepresentations that are such a nuisance to correct when someone challenges them--I asked one nice, young interviewer to let me see her article before it was published. She agreed, with effusions of goodwill.
Now, she brought with her the two books that had prompted the interview, she had a tape recorder going, and she took notes. When she phoned me the next day to say that the issue was going to press immediately, so I wouldn't be able to see her interview but she just knew there would be no errors, I could only sigh in hopes.
They were daunted. She didn't spell my name correctly throughout; she mixed up the two titles; she described my sister-in-law as "pottering" about in the kitchen--well, Sis has been a potter, but the correct term is "putter." To crown the confusion, she had my father dying in the Crimean War. When I phoned to ask for corrections, she didn't even realize the time scale between the two wars. They both started with a "k" sound; Korea or Crimea, did it make that much difference? They were both wars, weren't they? As someone who tries to be positive about such blunders. I told everyone that I was really 134 years old and my mother had given birth to my younger brother posthumously. When I told Kevin about the mistake, he allowed as how that must explain why he'd had so much trouble all his life!
In Christmas '91, I visited the far-flung members of my family and agreed to do autograph sessions in Dayton, Ohio; St. Louis, Missouri; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Los Angeles, returning favors done relatives.
I discovered that there are two new parameters in the readership: 1) that the kids who read the Harper Hall series are now grown-up enough to introduce the next crop to the books, and 2) that there are kinds who've had to read either "The Smallest Dragonboy" or one of the Harper Hall novels in class.
I've had very mixed feelings about having stories included in school textbooks or on required-reading lists. I generally loathed the books I had to read. So, in St. Louis, when a trio of boys told me they'd read "The Smallest Dragonboy" even as they asked me to personalize copies of Dragondrums for them, I got the nerve to ask if they liked it.
"Well, it wasn't that bad," I was told by a Tom Sawyerish type. "Not bad at all."
"I liked it," said another one of the group.
"D'you see that gentleman over there on the bench?" I said, pointing to my brother, Kevin, silver-haired like me and virtually unflappable. "That's my brother and the model for Keevan"--the hero of "The Smallest Dragonboy." "You should get his autograph, too."
"Him?" asked the third boy, incredulous.
"He was young once, too, and very brave, just like Keevan."
They did get Keve's autograph. Why should I do all the work?
I don't say that I adore autograph sessions: the last promotion trip has left me with tennis elbow. But they do provide me with the feedback that is invaluable to an author who spends a lot of solitary hours in front of a keyboard. It also answers some part of the question "So, you're Anne McCaffrey?"
Copyright 1994 by Anne McCaffrey
Excerpted from The Girl Who Heard Dragons by McCaffrey, Anne Copyright © 1995 by McCaffrey, Anne. Excerpted by permission.
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