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Authors: William Hjortsberg

Gray Matters

Gray Matters
William Hjortsberg

For Janie



Gray Matters

1. Hive

2. Pupa

3. Imago

4. Drone

5. Larva


science fiction.” So wrote Harry Crews in 1971 in his review of
Gray Matters
for the
New York Times Book Review.
Of course, it helped that he went on to say the novel “turns out to be not SciFi, but an engrossing fiction informed by an imaginative use of science.” Still, Crews had a point to make. Writers of serious literary fiction weren’t supposed to dirty their lily-white hands with generic trash. It didn’t matter that such fine work as
The Oxbow Incident
The Bronc People
were westerns, that both
Brave New World
should be classified as science fiction, and that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler both wrote what anyone would define as detective
Genre fiction remained something one despised and avoided at all costs. Even the slightest exposure might infect a writer with a bad case of brow-lowering.

I just didn’t get it. Anyone who reads for enjoyment (and what other reason is there for opening a work of fiction?) knows not to risk such premature judgment. Otherwise, we all would have to give up on the manifold pleasures of Kurt Vonnegut, Graham Greene, Shirley Jackson, John le Carré and Stanislaw Lem, to mention but a few of the “serious” writers who have ventured into forbidden genre territory. I first encountered science fiction at a summer camp when I was twelve. Among the handful of battered secondhand books in the mess hall library was a first edition of Ray Bradbury’s
The Martian Chronicles,
published three years earlier. From the opening blasts of “Rocket Summer” to the final loneliness of “There Shall Come Soft Rains” and “The Million-Year Picnic,” I was spellbound. Before this, I had read only comic books, golden age cape-wearing superheroes and the more disturbing psychosexual horrors of the EC canon. Bradbury introduced me to the joys of literature and he remains a favorite author to this day.

In high school, I devoured the work of Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe and J. D. Salinger (who had also attended McBurney), but in many ways, my heart still belonged to Bradbury. Yet, when I first began writing fiction with a certain seriousness myself, my models were Hemingway and Salinger and not the cherished Ray. I knew well enough to avoid science fiction’s curse. By my mid-twenties, I had written two fairly conventional novels that went nowhere (although the second earned me a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford), and when at twenty-seven I found that the only job for which I qualified was as a stock boy in a grocery store, I realized I had ruined my life with the pursuit of literature.

Writers never choose to write. Rather they discover over time that, for better or worse, writing is in their nature. They simply can’t help themselves. Although I had abandoned all hope of ever earning a living from my writing, I nevertheless continued to write. Every afternoon, when I returned home from a day of trimming lettuce and stamping prices on the tops of canned dog food, I’d sit down at my portable Royal and rattle off a page or two purely for my own pleasure. And here came the breakthrough failure had compelled me to confront. Because I no longer contemplated a writing career, I was free to abandon all the “rules” I had acquired preparing for it: always write what you know, write from experience, never write when stoned, keep a notebook handy. I gave up the misguided notion that writing is hard work. From now on, I wrote for the fun of it, for the sheer exuberant pleasure of making things up. I wrote when I was high as a kite. Best of all, I wrote what I didn’t know.

The outcome of all this rule-breaking fooling around was
a zany sex-farce set in a mythical Switzerland, work that led John Leonard to call me “a satanic S. J. Perelman … by way of Disney and de Sade.” The path my little comic novel followed to a review in the
New York Times
seemed as haphazard and accidental as the manner of its composition. Tom McGuane had recently sold his first novel to Simon and Schuster and it was hard to stifle my envy when he was correcting his galleys while I stacked boxes of breakfast cereal at the store. In those days, Tom and I showed each other our works in progress, offering advice and hopefully helpful critical commentary. When he kept asking to see what I was working on, I remained evasive. Making the whole thing up as I went along, page by page, seeking only to amuse myself in the process, I had no idea at all where my foolish experiment was going. Finally, Tom persuaded me to let him take the first forty pages home to read over the weekend.

“Quite possibly the finest comic novel ever written in America.” McGuane’s candid assessment the following Monday flabbergasted me. Tom insisted he send the pages on to his editor at S&S. I thought of every possible reason to decline his generous offer. The book wasn’t finished. Worse, it was only a first draft typed on cheap second-sheet canary paper and heavily corrected with Magic Marker strike-outs and ballpoint pen inserts. None of this mattered to Tom. He said he’d have it Xeroxed at his expense (twenty-five cents a page seemed a sum to be reckoned with in those impoverished buck-an-hour days) and pay for all the postage. In the end, I relented. What did it matter? I wasn’t an aspiring professional writer anymore. I was just a guy who worked for minimum wage in a grocery.

Two or three weeks later, a call came for me at Jack Pepper’s General Store in Bolinas, California. This in itself wasn’t unusual. Too poor at the time to afford the luxury of a telephone, I often gave out the store’s number to anyone needing to get hold of me in a hurry. The enthusiastic voice on the other end belonged to Richard Locke from Simon and Schuster. He loved
and wanted to publish the book. S&S would pay me a $2,000 advance, a thousand bucks on signing and another grand upon their acceptance of a finished manuscript. At the end of my shift, I untied my stock boy’s apron and walked out of the store into the rest of my life.

The following year, part of the prepublication publicity for
involved my inclusion in a
magazine article about “young authors.” I didn’t feel all that young back then. At twenty-eight, I was the same age as Stephen Crane when he died. Nevertheless, I told the interviewer that I wrote novels “on whim,” a bit of an exaggeration as it certainly didn’t apply to either of my other two unpublished manuscripts. This was the period of the world’s first heart transplant operations and one night, high at a party, I made a wisecrack to the effect that if medical science kept moving in this direction, one day we’d just throw away our vulnerable bodies and simply preserve our brains in some elaborate home entertainment center. Adrift in my hangover the next morning, I thought that if I did actually write novels on whim, I might as well go for a spin with my crazy brain notion. The end result, after a year of work, was
Gray Matters.

almost seemed to write itself and I flew through a first draft in less than six months, this new as-yet-untitled brain project went a lot slower. At first, under the influence of Samuel Beckett or, perhaps, Dalton Trumbo, I endeavored to write the book in the first person. Wasn’t a brain floating in a fish tank the ultimate first person singular? I also decided to use the present tense. Why not describe the future as the present? This time the influence was Joyce Carey’s exquisite novel,
Mr. Johnson.
The problem, after thirty pages or so, was that nothing was happening. My little brain just floated in solitude, thinking his random thoughts, while the story remained utterly static.

After my false start in a borrowed New York City apartment, I ventured out to Montana for the first time and started again from scratch in a little cabin at Chico Hot Springs near Yellowstone Park. It was the summer of Woodstock and the first moon landing, aside from the ongoing horrors of Vietnam, a time of hope and promise. I salvaged a few odds and ends out of those unusable first pages. The original nameless brain had evolved into Skeets. I also came up with the concept of memory-merge and had some idea of the mechanized world wherein Skeets dwelled. He had watched the films of a Czech actress named Vera Mitlovic and studied the work of Obu Itubi, an African sculptor, so I arbitrarily made them characters in the book. For structure, I fell back on the quick-cutting character jumps I had used in
and started making the new draft up day by day as I went along. True to my word, I wrote the novel on whim.

I finished the first draft of
Gray Matters
in Barra de Navidad, Mexico, during the winter of 1970. It was only ninety pages long. Buying into Hemingway’s notion that an iceberg achieved its “dignity of motion” because two-thirds of its bulk remained under the surface, I left out about half of my story and sent it off to New York with my fingers crossed. This time, not only did I have no phone but, when the time came to talk with Simon and Schuster, I had to ride the bus all the way up to Guadalajara in order to make the call. Although my new editor liked what she saw and offered a modest advance, she did observe that the book seemed “terribly short.”

Enlarging the novel presented no great difficulty. I already knew the iceberg’s underwater size and shape. Geographical shifts provided the major delays. I moved first to Key West and then on to Connecticut before the revisions were finally finished that fall. In the meantime, my agent (bless her mercenary heart) sold the abbreviated ninety-page version to
for a sum triple my book advance.
Gray Matters
fared far better in the marketplace than did
The novel went into a second hardback printing, had a decent paperback sale and appeared in several foreign editions. (Three cheers for the French, who’ve kept it continuously in print for over three decades.) Later, it won a 1971 Playboy Editorial Award (Best New Fiction Contributor). Gabriel Garcia Márquez came in second. He went on to win the Nobel Prize, so I guess he doesn’t hold any grudges.

Of all the accolades and success garnered by
Gray Matters,
what pleased me the most was a fan letter forwarded by my publisher to my old-fashioned combination-dial mailbox at the post office/general store/gas pump in Pray, Montana. It came unsolicited from John Cheever, one of my all-time favorite authors. He had happened upon my little novel and generously wrote to say he “didn’t think anyone could go that far out and bring it off.” Cheever said I had done just that and offered his “congratulations and best wishes.” My hands trembled every time I reread his brief note. I guess I had committed literature after all.

With my
money, I moved my small family to a house overlooking the Caribbean at Playa Bonita, Costa Rica. I had expected to dip my toe into the turbulent ocean of science fiction only a single time, but after the success of
Gray Matters,
the fiction editor at
asked me to risk the undertow once again. This was more of an enticement than an actual assignment. Lured by the potential of another fat paycheck, I plunged back in, writing the first draft of
between bouts of bodysurfing during the winter of 1971. Alas, when I submitted the piece,
rejected it, as did subsequently a dozen other magazines. Even the pulp rags didn’t want it. I felt like the drowning captain on a sinking ship.

A year or so later, Dan Gerber (poet, fiction writer, essayist, formula one racer and small press mogul) read the novella in Montana. He offered to publish the piece as the first in a series of short fiction his Sumac Press planned on releasing. There was a modest advance and a beautiful limited edition. “Another short story done up in hardcover,” sniffed the
New York Times.
With only a thousand copies in print, we weren’t expecting a best seller. Another year went by.
ran a condensed version of
calling it “The Dreamer.” Later, Embassy Pictures optioned the little book and hired me to develop it into a script. The
L. A. Times
named “Nomad” among the ten best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. Recently,
was optioned again for three more years. It went from rejection and failure to one of my most successful projects. There’s a moral in here somewhere.

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