Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Thomas M. Disch, 1940-2008

Thomas M. Disch, a great American science-fiction writer and critic, killed himself four days ago.

My admittedly small relationship with him involved a couple of memorable miscommunications. In late 1980, when I was 20, the Ontario Science Fiction Club (OSFiC), which my friends Carolyn Clink, Ted Bleaney, and I had recently joined, was to devote a meeting to the novels of a great writer. Somehow, Carolyn, Ted, and I got word that the writer in question was Thomas M. Disch, and we went out and read his Camp Concentration, The Genocides, and On Wings of Song.

At the time, all were easy to find in mass-market paperback. Pulling those copies off my shelf today, I see that my Pocket Books paperback of The Genocides was a first printing, dated September 1979; my Bantam paperback of Camp Concentration was February 1980; and my Bantam paperback of On Wings of Song was September 1980: three mass-market releases in the space of a year.

I found all three books fascinating, beautifully written, sad, and memorable -- it's almost 18 years since I've read them now, and they all still stick with me, although particularly On Wings of Song.

Well, Carolyn, Ted, and I showed up at the OSFiC meeting at Hart House at the University of Toronto, all set to discuss the books -- and discovered the topic was not "The Novels of Thomas M. Disch," but rather "The Novels of Philip K. Dick" -- which none of us had read at that point.

Five years later, in the summer of 1985, I was under commission from CBC Radio's Ideas series to write and narrate three one-hour documentaries about science fiction. The CBC sent me to Manhattan to interview SF authors, and one of the first I had scheduled to meet was Thomas M. Disch. I was to come to his apartment building -- the same one, as I understand it, that he was concerned just before his death about being evicted from.

But, again, miscommunication: somehow I'd written down the wrong apartment number, and there was no buzz-board with the name Disch in the lobby. I had no trouble getting into the building, though and got to the door, and was sure it must be the right apartment: it had a massive lion's head knocker on the door, an oddly fierce, ostentatious, but bold thing to put on one's door in an apartment building. I knocked it several times, but no one was home (or, at least, no one answered).

The next day, I did get Disch on the phone, and it turns out that wasn't his apartment; he was amused to learn that one of his neighbors (on a different floor) has such a knocker, and that I'd thought it indicative of him.

We had a wonderful interview (among other things, he savaged Lester del Rey's "Helen O'Loy," and I recall using a clip of that portion in the documentary). I found him a fascinating character: he looked, to me, like a sailor, with big, muscular arms, but he had a strangely high-pitched voice. After, the interview, which we recorded in his apartment, he asked me if I wanted to go for a walk, and we did -- a very pleasant walk around his neighborhood.

My final interaction with Tom was on Thursday, June 18, 1998. His wonderful but thorny nonfiction book about science fiction, The Stuff Our Dreams Are Made Of, had just come out, and CTV's flagship morning television program Canada AM had me on, in studio in Toronto, to essentially debate the points in Disch's book with him; he was hooked up by satellite from (I suspect -- I don't remember) New York.

I don't think Disch had any idea that the 38-year-old he was hearing at his end was the same guy as the 25-year-old who had interviewed him in New York all those years ago ... nor do I think had he been quite briefed (or maybe it was just too early in the morning for him, or one in a series of interviews he was doing) on the fact that this was to be a debate; he seemed somewhat peeved that he wasn't being given a simple soapbox to propound about the failings of SF.

In point of fact, I agreed with many of his points, but my brief on that occasion was to defend the genre (and at one point Tom said to me, "You're giving the Party line," which indeed, I was). Anyway, it was a good piece of television.

I imagine I have a VHS tape of the Canada AM debate somewhere in one of my storage units (and I still have the raw CBC Radio interview on cassette tape, also in a storage locker somewhere); someday I'll get around to digitizing all those things -- hopefully before they all decay.

Anyway, I liked Disch as a person, and I liked him as a writer. And, as my wife Carolyn has noticed, I've been moping around quite a bit these last couple of days since I learned of his suicide. Depression is common among writers, all over the world, and I've seen many a colleague struggle with it.

Thomas M. Disch took his own life with his own gun, after being financially devastated by medical expenses during the long illness preceding the death of his life partner. He killed himself on the Fourth of July.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At July 08, 2008 12:26 PM , Blogger Michael A. Burstein said...

Thank you for sharing that.

At July 08, 2008 8:57 PM , Blogger Nicholas Collins said...

Although it's been over ten years since you wrote it, does an unfortunate story like this make some of the ideas in 'Frameshift' all the more meaningful, including the epilogue?

At July 08, 2008 9:12 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Nicholas: Yes, absolutely.


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