Science friction

Dallas author Patricia Anthony's sci-fi caught Hollywood's interest. But her decision to chuck the whole genre caught New York's wrath.

Hers is a transformation as amazing as the shape-shifting you'll find in the pulpiest of science fiction. To witness it is to be astonished at the writer emerging from the cocoon; it's like a creature springing fully formed out of a pod until it walks, talks, and looks like the same person, only it's an entirely different being.

In this case, the pod from which Patricia Anthony has emerged is the world of science-fiction writing, the genre that has earned her an international readership and lavish critical notices. But there are no throngs of sci-fi fans present on this night at Borders Books and Music in Preston Royal to witness Anthony's mutation into a writer of historical fiction. The sparse turnout is exactly what you'd expect for a first novelist, not a celebrated novelist.

The 20 or so men and women who have shown up for this meet-and-greet are Anthony readers of the most intimate variety: friends and well-wishers, and almost everyone knows her personally. A gray-haired lady in fake pearls and sneakers positions herself on the front row and tosses comments behind her to everyone and no one. She opens the front of Flanders, Anthony's new novel, and waves a page over her shoulder: "Look," she says, "she dedicated it to us."

Flanders is dedicated to the classifieds sales staff of The Dallas Morning News, where Anthony worked for 14 years while she tried to get published. The listeners assembled this night are divided unevenly among three groups: those who have worked alongside Anthony at the Morning News; those who were in her group of published and unpublished writers that meet weekly, officially known as The Wednesday Weirdos; and those who have attended the creative writing class she's taught every semester at Southern Methodist University for three years.

"I wanted to write a book about death," Anthony preaches to her choir before she begins reading from Flanders. "Not the peripheral stuff about death, the things that scare us. I wanted to write a book about the transcendence of death."

She leans beside the podium, her short, plump form wrapped in a black dress and a leopard-print jacket. She is both professorial and off-the-cuff as she opens a page and begins to read an extremely graphic passage from the middle of Flanders. In it, the book's narrator, Travis Lee Stanhope, a Texan who enlisted in the British army for a taste of battle during World War I, finds himself terrified to the point of second sight after rifle combat with the Germans and slithering through the slime and carnage of northern France's swampy Flanders Fields.

Afterward, Anthony sits at a wooden table; Hal Copland, the Dallas-based publicist she has hired, stands beside her like a friendly bodyguard. She doesn't just smile and sign, like most authors in a hurry to get away from such dreaded affairs; rather, she holds court, dispensing advice and asking for feedback. She wants to hear from one slow-talking fellow, a war buff and avid history reader, asking if he thinks she has done her research. She encourages one young woman, a former student, to start writing again, "because you've really got something."

Not only that--the young writer's work, if it got wider exposure, "could upset people," Anthony insists. "That's important."

Patricia Anthony knows all about upsetting people, including a former editor, her current agent, and the claustrophobic, market-obsessed New York publishing industry. They are a little frightened at the new being that's emerged from the cocoon after writing Flanders, because they thought they knew Patricia Anthony.

She had written seven books before, many of them best-sellers, all of them officially classified as science fiction. To the thrill of her New York-based publishing house, Ace, it was announced two years ago that Titanic director James Cameron had optioned her second book, Brother Termite, as a possible feature film.

Then, to the surprise of everyone--especially her rabid, longtime fans--Anthony abruptly changed directions. This past April saw the release of her first non-sci-fi novel, Flanders, a profoundly spiritual look at one young life trapped between brilliant, beautiful hallucinations of salvation and dumb, ugly battlefield killing, buttressed by some expansive research into the European nationalist conflicts of 1916. Flanders features no little gray aliens in the White House or androids named Beagle or mysterious anti-gravity technology, all subjects of some of her previous books.

The metamorphosis of Patricia Anthony has not been a smooth one. She is still jacketed by the sci-fi label, literally: Flanders bears the words "science fiction" on its hardcover spine, a flagrant case of false advertising. Anthony is currently without a publisher for her next novel, an even riskier venture: It's a mammoth fictional history of Puritanism narrated by a sex-obsessed angel.

The buzz from New York publishers--who have committed so much money to a very small group of projects these days, who consider Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser authors, for God's sake--dictates that successful authors who attempt to leap from one section of the bookstore to another will inevitably fall into the bottomless crevices between and be lost forever. But Anthony's transformation is about something far deeper than book sales.

It's about a woman risking everything--her career, her financial success, her reputation, even her health--because she must. In the end, after all the success and all the praise, Anthony claims, "I didn't know I could write until I finished Flanders."

At age 51, Patricia Anthony has an intense, sagacious stare that sometimes contrasts with the easygoing Texas twang that stretches the edges of her speech. The stare overtakes the twang when she discusses the limitations of sci-fi. She is not always charitable to--is sometimes downright dismissive of--the genre that made her name. "I'm too messy, too passionate for science fiction!" she declares.

Before everything--before her first publisher, Harcourt Brace, inaugurated its first (and now defunct) line of science-fiction hardcovers in 1993 just to showcase her novels; before the slobbering reviews from normally reticent sources such as The New York Times and Publisher's Weekly; and before her frustrating extended foreplay with one of the world's hottest filmmakers--Anthony was just a reader, a teacher, an observer from the sidelines. She didn't even begin writing until 1980.

She had spent the '70s traveling as an English professor with her then-husband--a man she now refers to as "Darth Vader"--and their two children. Her husband also taught English, and they wound up working together at universities in Brazil and Portugal.

They divorced in 1978, and Patricia landed in Dallas. The only fiction writing she'd done up to that point was as a kid in her native San Antonio, when she was "going through my science-fiction phase, as all kids do." She had submitted a couple of pieces to Amazing Stories written in long-hand on lined paper. As it happens, that was pretty much the last time she considered herself a serious sci-fi reader.

"The '70s were a big time for horror and thrillers," she recalls. "That's what I read before I started writing. One day I was sitting in the back yard catching some rays and reading Stephen King's The Stand. And I thought, 'I can do this; I'm an English professor.' It was blind egotism. Writers have to have that. You have to think you're good enough to write something that people not only want to read, but that editors will pay for."

She began earnestly, diligently writing short stories, then novels. She accrued a stack of rejection notes "two feet high," she recalls; if nothing else, she figured editors would remember her name from the rejection letters alone and wear down long enough to give her a shot. Eventually, it worked: She sold her first story in 1987, and over the next few years earned enough of a reputation to sell her first novel, Cold Allies, to Harcourt Brace in 1992. Indeed, they bought and published her first three books to introduce an ill-fated sci-fi line.

But the question remains: Why did she start writing sci-fi, a genre so often associated with male authors?

"The best way I can answer it is to say I've always been fascinated with people facing the impossible, and a great way to explore that is through aliens," she explains. "I've always been charmed by ufology and accounts of alien sightings, which many sci-fi writers dismiss as ridiculous. They're interested in the 'science' part of it, and from that angle, it is silly. But I don't care whether it's scientifically provable that a woman in Nebraska saw a two-seater UFO outside her front door. I care that she believes it, and what it means to her."

Anthony describes the gulf that's always existed between her and traditional sci-fi--a chasm that widens every time Anthony releases a book--like this: "Let's say I'm telling a joke to the sci-fi community," she begins. "I start off with, 'An alien walks into a bar...' and they interrupt me: 'What does the alien look like?' The sci-fi community doesn't get my joke."

Indeterminate classifications. Metamor-phoses. Startling epiphanies. They not only describe Anthony's career, they are themes that pop up obsessively in Anthony's sci-fi--whether it's the healing intervention of a robot who helps an astronaut cope with his wife's tragic death in Conscience of the Beagle; or the are-they-angels-or-are-they-aliens? philosophical question at the heart of God's Fires, her story of an Inquisitor experiencing a crisis of faith during the Spanish Inquisition. It was God's Fires that threw down the gauntlet for sci-fi fans by putting the alien stuff in a pivotal but limited role. But hers are themes that become her defense when she starts talking about why she has abandoned sci-fi.

Wait a minute. Patricia Anthony has not abandoned sci-fi. She claims that from the beginning, she never really was sci-fi, at least not in that emotionally distant, sense-of-wonder, where-is-technology-taking-us? way. "I've always used aliens as a tool to talk about people," she says. "They put 'science fiction' on my books because they didn't know what else to call me."

Past reviews have spoken sotto voce about Anthony's awkward fit in the niche. The New York Times Book Review described Brother Termite as a "dark, moody, scary, imaginatively written novel" that is "suffused with poetry," but despite all the mentions of aliens who sleep in hives to absorb communal brain energy and alien-human DNA experiments, the Times reviewed it under the "Spies & Thrillers" section. Happy Policeman--her story of a cosmetic saleswoman's murder in a small Texas town that just happened to be isolated from the rest of the world by a race of aliens called the Torku--was included in the Times Book Review's "Science Fiction" section. But the critic described it as "more of a crisp police procedural" full of the "petty jealousies and rampant adulteries that bedevil small-town law enforcement" rather than a straight sci-fi triumph.

As well-crafted, probingly philosophical, and multi-layered as her best science fiction has been declared, nothing before has prepared readers for the visceral thrust of Flanders, in which one smart-ass adventurer discovers his soul through bruising, repetitive English-German confrontations on the especially difficult terrain of Flanders Fields.

It's one thing to imagine a future world overrun by insectoid creatures, rebel humans, and a beleaguered alien go-between who simultaneously tries to save a dying alien species and deal with a new, unsettling emotional dependency on a human female, as the protagonist Reen must do in Brother Termite. It's quite another to pore through news clippings, scholarship, and first-person accounts of an actual event and glean not only overarching themes about the human experience from all of it, but apply a see-smell-touch-taste verbal texture that convincingly speaks the unspeakable.

For most of us, it's easier to picture an alien invasion than it is to imagine shooting a stranger across a field and watching him flop around like a fish, blood spraying from his throat. Narrator Travis Lee Stanhope does this, and we peer with the same nausea through his sights.

The book is a harrowing triumph...and, if you listen to the whispers coming from New York, career suicide. Way down here in the Texas prairies, you can hear publishers and agents wondering why a woman who may soon rocket into the stratosphere of brand-name recognition, thanks to James Cameron's courtship, would throw it all away. They are quick to declare her a "genius" to inquiring reporters, but mutter behind closed doors about her rationality.

And so life is a queer mixture of heaven and hell for Anthony these days. She's on anxiety medication to help bring down a blood pressure that's risen off the charts because of stress. Friends call regularly to make sure things are OK.

"As a person, I think I'm pretty nice to be around," Anthony says. "But as an author, I can be hell."

In 1994, Anthony read a review of Happy Policeman in which the critic used a description she'd never heard before, and she embraced it warmly: slipstream. It's a word that has circulated in literary journals for a good 15 years, but is appearing more and more in the book sections of daily and weekly publications.

Slipstream refers to authors who slip in and out of genres, but most importantly, it classifies the unclassifiable. It is Kryptonite to the marketing that drives the New York literary houses to make their editorial decisions.

The term was originally coined by sci-fi writer Richard Dorsett, but was made manifesto by cyberpunk pioneer and Austin resident Bruce Sterling, who started writing semi-traditional sci-fi in the late '70s, got pissed off, then began to circulate a self-published one-sheet called The Cheap Truth that promoted his friends' writing and kicked traditional "skiffies" (his nickname for sci-fi writers) in the ass every chance it got.

When he began speaking out in the early '80s, Sterling was even more blunt than Anthony in his assessment of the genre from which he, too, eventually weaned himself. "Protected by the iron curtain of category marketing," Sterling writes, hardcore sci-fi is "gaudy and naive, possessed of half-baked fantasies of power and wish fulfillment." Slipstream--a designation that would house authors as various as Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, Margaret Atwood, and Will Self--is as a potential genre the target of "vast dim marketing forces" that would "militate against its commercial success."

Radical literary amorphism or paranoid conspiracy theory of letters? Maybe some of both, but it's hard to underestimate the role of market considerations in contemporary fiction. Patricia Anthony is more precise describing slipstream.

"Slipstream is fiction that might be considered mainstream, except for one small but important element, usually a genre element," she explains. "Flanders includes the appearance of ghosts. The fiction of Amy Tan and Toni Morrison does too. But we don't write 'ghost stories.' I think of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, or John Updike's new book [Beach at Bay: A Quasi-Novel]. Both of them are set in post-apocalyptic worlds. Those authors created these settings, then said, 'Fuck the post-apocalyptic world; I'm going to write about people.'"

After the release of Happy Policeman, Harcourt Brace decided to divest itself of its sci-fi line in 1994. Anthony has no bitterness about the move. Her explanation comes as a denunciation of the genre that never suited her: "They publish literary fiction," she says. "They had a reputation to protect." Putnam Berkley's sci-fi division, Ace, which had always handled her paperback rights, assumed both hardback and soft-cover duties at that point.

It was only three years before Anthony's association with Ace would also begin to sour. The trouble began with the hardcover publication of God's Fires in 1997. Anthony says that when she saw the cover Ace had planned, she went into a tizzy. The book is set in Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition and deals with how Catholic leaders and peasants react to the appearance of a "glowing acorn" that zooms down from the sky.

Ace's hardcover jacket features a small, pulpy illustration of a reddish yellow beam of light shooting into a gloomy, H.P. Lovecraftian castle overlooking gigantic crevices in the ground. Nothing about the picture suggests Portugal or the 17th century or even Earth. Anthony has dubbed the illustration "Death Ray Attack on the Planet Zandor." She dismisses it by saying, "People have to be able to buy something they're not ashamed to read on the bus."

Her efforts to get the hardback cover scrapped were unsuccessful. Ace compromised with a "more literary" paperback cover whose illustration suggests a French Impressionist take on European cathedrals. But by then, Anthony had rejected Ace's in-house publicity machine and hired her own. Sales of God's Fires were poor compared with those of her previous titles.

Susan Allison, the head of Ace and Anthony's former editor, defends the hardback cover her art department created for God's Fires. This was, after all, the same team that whips up art for all Ace titles.

"The cover had already been designed when Patricia expressed her displeasure," she says. "We always take an author's feelings into consideration, but from a financial point of view, it would be very unusual for us to do a complete redesign. When it came time to create the paperback cover, Patricia was involved more in the process, and she liked the results."

This disagreement was a trickle compared with the flood that would follow.
Anthony's New York literary agent, Don Maas, had successfully negotiated a contract for two more books. Ace is Putnam Berkley's science-fiction and fantasy imprint; they publish no other kind of fiction. So what did Anthony deliver as the first half of the deal? Flanders, a novel about the earthbound horrors of World War I. Ace cooked up a cover that everyone liked, but slapped the label "science fiction" on the spine, because that's the business they're in.

"When we signed for two more books with Ace, they assumed the books would have at least some sci-fi in them," says Maas, who also represents British sci-fi writer Christopher Priest and mystery author Ann Perry. "I assumed the books would have some sci-fi in them. There had already been trouble with God's Fires: Everyone involved only reluctantly agreed to label that book science fiction. Patricia was very uncomfortable with that. Since I first met her back in 1994, she was telling me, 'I'm not a science-fiction writer.'"

Upon publication in April, Kirkus Reviews weighed in with a typical rave and a slap on the wrist to Ace. Flanders is "mesmerizing stuff, highly textured, and brimming with insight," the reviewer offered. "Why is it science fiction? Well, it isn't, and attempting to market it as such helps this frustratingly underappreciated author not at all. Science fiction's loss would be the literary mainstream's gain."

Allison says she had no problem with the book's literary quality, but admits the match is a little uncomfortable for her house.

"This book is not science fiction," she says. "Everyone knew that. There was probably discussion between Patricia and her agent that there might have been a more suitable place to take the book, but I'm not in that end of the business. We decided to put it out there. Sometimes you have to roll with what you're given."

Ace had considerably more trouble rolling with what Anthony submitted as the second half of her contract, Mercy's Children. Anthony describes it, oversimplistically, as a 700-page novel about the rise of Puritanism and the founding of America narrated entirely in Elizabethan English by an angel.

"It's the dirtiest thing I've written," Anthony says. "You have this angel, who transcends past, present, and future, taking you on a guided tour that includes a lot of sex. He'll stop the story to narrate a blow-by-blow account of a couple screwing in the straw. The Elizabethan English probably means it'll take the Religious Right longer to get mad."

Ace wanted the book cut in half and the graphic sex scenes soft-pedaled. This was an impasse more treacherous--and ultimately, more final--than a dispute over a cover illustration. Susan Allison says Ace and Anthony are "in negotiation" about whether Ace will publish Mercy's Children, but Anthony and Maas have seized their option to shop the manuscript around.

"I think Patricia Anthony is a genius," Allison says flatly. "And I sincerely hope she will find a more suitable home for her talents. What she's doing is a very brave and very difficult thing. She is, in some ways, a first novelist all over again."

Allison does have a point: Indeed, why should Ace, an imprint that specializes in science fiction and fantasy, be forced to promote outside its market for one author in the stable? Anthony and Maas knew from the get-go they were signing to a sci-fi label, and they knew the contract called for genre books.

Anthony, to a certain extent, misled the publisher when she became part of Ace's stable. And she knows it.

"It's not Ace's fault," she admits. "They were buying a pig in a poke when they signed that contract. I'm sort of unusual for an author, because I don't turn in pieces of my book as I finish them; I turn in a completed manuscript. And I don't work with outlines or any kind of plan. It's difficult enough for novelists to come up with simple descriptions to pitch their books. And when editors ask me, 'What's going to happen next?' I tell them I don't know."

These days, Anthony waits for news from New York on Mercy's Children and from Hollywood on Brother Termite. In the meantime, she tends her herb garden, plays with her cats, and does research on the next book she'll write, which concerns a psychic who may also be a killer.

Preparation for the last prompts a warning from Anthony as she putters around the kitchen of her small townhouse in far North Dallas, concocting a glass of iced tea for her guest that includes homegrown herbs such as lemon verbena and thyme. "Don't get nervous about the reading material in the bathroom," she cautions. "All those books on the art of poisoning are just research."

All this stressful idleness does not pay the bills. If Anthony sells Mercy's Children to another publisher, she will have to give back the advance money Ace paid her. Not immediately, but eventually. For now, that money is helping her live while she's between publishing houses.

"I'm facing financial disaster," Anthony admits, wearily.
A source of income might--might--come Anthony's way in September. That's when James Cameron's option on Brother Termite must be renewed, or else the project will be dropped. While it's impossible to predict Hollywood decision-making through tea leaves, goat entrails, or any reliable standards of logic, there are some good signs from Cameron. After his initial 18-month option ended, he picked it up for another six months. And his company, Lightstorm Entertainment, has ponied up $30,000 to reserve the rights; average option payments are closer to $5,000. And in February, Lone Star director John Sayles, who was chosen to write the script because of his satirical skills with such genre exercises as Brother From Another Planet and The Howling, completed a final draft of the screenplay.

"I've read in different sites on the Internet that Cameron is pursuing David Cronenberg to direct," Anthony says. "But we haven't heard a peep from Lightstorm about that. I can't confirm it."

Calls to some guy named Tom (no last names, no direct extensions, please) at Lightstorm in California, and to the offices of co-president Rae Sanchini, were not returned.

Anthony can confirm that after a short telephone conversation, John Sayles sent her an early version of the script. "To my shock, he kept the ending," she says of the first draft. "He enlarged the role of a minor character. He included a satirical bit about Reen, the lead alien, getting his own show and a little merchandised Reen doll that squeaks when you squeeze it."

Anthony says she doesn't like to think about a possible film version of Brother Termite, or the fact that the development people at Disney have called and expressed an interest in Flanders. "My daughter lives in France, and a friend of hers over there says he read an interview with James Cameron in which Cameron said his next project would be about an alien. Based on what I know about what's on his plate, it seems likely that could be my alien."

She pauses. This kind of guessing game amounts to self-flagellation during this long, long wait.

The fact is, if Cameron does bring Brother Termite to America's multiplexes, it will be a bittersweet victory. On the one hand, it will mean a nice chunk of money for her through increased book sales, probably for her entire paperback line at Ace. And that will mean increased visibility for the science fiction that Patricia Anthony has written. But would the fans who are introduced to her writing via James Cameron head straight for Mercy's Children? Not unless they're willing to pull aside Bruce Sterling's slipstream "iron curtain of category marketing."

Don Maas, whose agency has been selling fiction in New York for 18 years, outlines the dilemma he currently faces in shopping around Anthony's gigantic manuscript. Needless to say, all reluctance an editor experiences originates a few offices down the hall, in the marketing department.

"Think of the way most bookstores are arranged," he says. "Fiction is not available in one place. There are usually four different categories--sci-fi/fantasy, romance, mystery, and what's called either general fiction or fiction and literature. An author who starts out in the sci-fi section can build a readership much quicker, because the readers who go to those shelves not only pick up their favorite authors, but they're willing to try different ones. They're interested in certain broad subjects or themes.

"Meanwhile, general fiction readers are brand-loyal, or author-loyal, if you will. They stick to a certain name, and they aren't likely to try a wide variety of authors. Seeing an author on the bestseller list, or hearing that they've won a Pulitzer, helps a lot. Patricia Anthony will be winning major literary awards, but we need time. When Patricia leaves the sci-fi shelf, she'll leave readers behind. And readers who don't read science fiction and aren't familiar with the quality of her work will just see a name on the jacket."

In addition, publishing houses might be a bit reluctant to sign an author who comes with a 700-page book attached to her--much less a 700-page historical novel told through the voice of a horny angel who speaks in heavy dialect. Publishers would be forced to sell such a gargantuan book for at least $30; not only would Mercy's Children cost a lot to sell, but it would cost a fortune just to produce.

"My reputation in this town means that I can call any editor at any house and be guaranteed that they'll at least read Mercy's Children," Maas says with the breezy chutzpah of a New York agent. "And that's one big hurdle overcome, because once they get past page one, they'll see that it's very humorous and easy to read. It's a wonderful, accessible novel...

"This book will find a publisher. The question is, will the next book and the next book and the book after that be published? Patricia Anthony needs to find a house that will stick with her for several titles so she can build an audience. There is a lot of pressure in publishing today to have a hit. There's not much encouragement to stick by talented writers through slow sales. A lot of authors are simply washed out."

And when publishers do take a chance on an imaginative new voice, the changing nature of book retailing--the superstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, the price clubs and discount chains such as Sam's and WalMart--means that a very large first printing must be done on titles that may not have mass appeal. A large first run requires a large publicity budget to protect the investment. Yet even after all that money's spent, publishers too often hear a knock at their warehouse door and open it to see a truckload of unsold novels.

Patricia Anthony is, of course, well aware that she has stepped from behind the iron curtain of sci-fi and leaped into a gigantic, roiling shark-tank of commercial pressures, where some literary ambitions have managed to stay afloat but many have been dragged below before they could learn how to swim.

But she possesses the what-the-hell? confidence that happens only when someone realizes they will happily sacrifice everything without compromising anything. She could easily have stayed on the sci-fi money train, even if only as a side project to finance her more literary aspirations. But Anthony is determined to be taken seriously, no matter the price.

"The New York publishing world has its head up its butt," she says bluntly. "They're losing shitloads of money. They pay too damn much for authors. Even the genres, the ones with the supposedly stable readerships, are suffering. Sci-fi publishers are scrambling to get new readers to the shelves by doing tie-ins with movies and video games. 'We have to look for characters in new places.' How about hiring good writers to write them?"

Good writers like Patricia Anthony. But mainstream risks be damned; New York had better not expect her to fail and come crawling back to science fiction. As she says, flatly and finally, "That's not possible now.

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