Science friction

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three groups: those who have worked alongside Anthony at the Morning News; those who were in her group of published and unpublished writers that meet weekly, officially known as The Wednesday Weirdos; and those who have attended the creative writing class she's taught every semester at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.

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Jimmy Fowler