A Few Words From Roger Zelazny: Travels and Close Calls

Roger Zelazny’s biographer and friend, Ted Krulik, is sharing insights and anecdotes from the author. In our first installment, Zelazny spoke about his own writing style; and in the second, Krulik curates some of Zelazny’s thoughts on his fellow science fiction authors

My wife and I were awakened at one in the morning by the loud shrieking of an alarm in our hotel room. Moments later, loud knocking came repeatedly at the door. I rushed to the door and opened it. A hotel employee stood there and cried out, “Fire alarm. Go to the hotel lobby. Hurry!”

We dressed quickly, left our room, and raced toward the lobby. A familiar figure headed toward us, speeding back to the rooms. It was Roger.

“You’re going the wrong way,” I said. “We have to evacuate.”

Roger stopped and gave us a wry grin. “I have to get something in my room.” Talking rapidly, Roger explained, “I was sitting in the bar with Kirby [Roger’s literary agent] talking about my new book when the fire alarm sounded. Kirby asked me where the manuscript was and I told him it was in my room. He asked if I had other copies and I told him, ‘No, it’s my only copy.’ So he had me go back to get it.” With that, Roger ran off in the wrong direction.

Fortunately, it was a false alarm. Some convention-goers thought it would be a good idea to light matches to test the sprinkler system in the hotel. Roger and his manuscript survived unscathed.

That story made the rounds at gatherings of Zelazny fans everywhere. It has since been made the stuff of legend. Did it happen? Yes, it did. It happened in just that way at Lunacon in Tarrytown, New York in 1989.

 

Jacobean Drama and Folk Music in New York City

Roger had been to New York earlier, of course, when he was a college student looking for a place to earn his Master’s Degree. He chose to reside in New York City while taking classes at Columbia University.

The experience had a lasting influence on him and his writing. This is how he told it to me:

I decided it would be nice to get my Master’s Degree in a different place than at Case Western [in Cleveland, Ohio]. I knew most of the professors there. I could see their lines of thought. I wanted to go someplace where there’d be a whole new crowd of people. And I thought it would be an interesting city to live in.

My impressions of New York were very pleasant. Columbia University in 1959 had a kind of reputation that interested me.

When I registered at Columbia, I tried to get into a Contemporary Lit course. The registrar told me, “I’m sorry; this section is closed. Take something else.” I looked through the course listings. There was Victorian Lit, Medieval Lit, and Dramatic Lit. I chose Dramatic Lit because it cut across all the periods. And I was fond of the theater.

I started specializing in Elizabethan Drama because that was one of the great periods in theater history. Doing very interesting things with language, it was an exciting time from a literary standpoint. I turned to Jacobean Drama because it was so close to Elizabethan. It had been only a few years after Queen Elizabeth had died.

Jacobean was gorier than Elizabethan. It was more morbid and I saw a lot of fun in that. Jacobean Drama has no really sympathetic characters. It has clever plots with all sorts of bloodshed and nasty people. It combines certain elements from the morality plays though characters have more civilized vices and tend to be well-rounded human beings.

I suppose my use of colloquial dialogue in my own stories comes from my experience in New York. It’s part of the overall condition there. Things do get said that way, at least in my experience.

I am very fond of folk music and went to places in the Village like The Fifth Peg and listened to people like Van Ronk and Dylan.

I hadn’t really considered those things about my own writing before, but I see it’s a possible influence on me.

—Santa Fe, NM, 1982

 

Stranded in New Zealand

When he became a full-time writer, Roger saw great benefits in traveling widely. It helped that he had become a science fiction author whose books were well known. Not only did he enjoy the cultural differences of other countries, he also took pleasure in meeting people in other lands, people who were quite memorable. He had a unique experience of that sort on his way to Australia with his two sons, Devin and Trent:

I enjoy travel very much. I’ve taken the kids to Europe when there were just the two boys. We had gone to France, Luxembourg, New Zealand, and Australia. We had an interesting encounter on that last leg. It looked as if we were going to be stranded in an airport in Auckland, New Zealand on our way to Australia. We couldn’t get another plane that night. We were talking to the fellow at the flight desk and it turned out he was familiar with my books. He took an interest in us because he had read and enjoyed what I wrote. He invited us to spend the night with his wife and himself in their home. We were all set to take him up on it, but fortunately we got a flight out. I was very touched by his offer. I’ll always remember him.

One summer we traded houses with another family in Ireland. Devin and Trent each had their own room. We loved the countryside there. It was so different from Santa Fe, where the Irish couple and their children spent the summer.

The places where I have the nameless character in My Name Is Legion meet his boss are real places I’ve been to. That works well for tax purposes, writing into my stories the places I’ve actually visited.

—Santa Fe, NM, 1982

 

Comics Convention in Dallas

Roger usually was modest about his celebrity status but he was rarely able to escape notice among fans. That was especially true when he was a regular attendee at a regional science fiction convention not too distant from his home. Even Roger’s children had some sense of that, as he explained:

I usually take along the kids to a convention in Dallas, which is a comic con. There are science fiction and movie and comics-type people represented there. My kids have been exposed to many conventions over the years but this one in Dallas seems one where they have a particularly good time.

I’ve always been interested in the history of the comics, what’s going on currently in the artwork and storylines, and I enjoy meeting some of the comics writers and artists. The kids are into those things too.

This past summer [1985], they had a scavenger hunt at the convention and one of the items to bring back was a Zelazny kid. Someone came up and asked, “Can I borrow one of your kids for a minute?” The kids got a kick out of that. Trent decided he was going to charge him a quarter. He’s going to be the businessman in the family.

—Necronomicon, Tampa, FL, 1985

Trent Zelazny and Ted Krulik at Readercon July 2013

Trent Zelazny and Ted Krulik at Readercon July 2013

 

A Hair’s Breadth Away…

A simple occurrence in a hotel lobby in Soviet Russia during the Cold War can seem like a page from a spy novel. Remarkable as it may seem, the following adventure actually took place and Roger found himself suddenly playing a part in a bit of political intrigue. Roger told me this story when the two of us sat alone in his hotel room in Tampa, Florida and I was recording on audio cassette. At one point, he spoke with quiet tones, with an air of caution, as if the walls had ears…

I was in the Soviet Union in 1982, where there’s an underground circulation of writings not officially translated. The term is ‘samizdat.’  Someone gets a copy of a book and likes it, but it’s not available there. So they make some copies and pass them around among their friends. A Soviet writer, a woman, came up to me—I think it was in Kiev or Leningrad—and said, “I’m in love with Corwin!” [from The Amber Chronicles]. I didn’t know how she could’ve gotten hold of the books. Then someone told me about the samizdat circulation.

In the Soviet Union, you always have the feeling someone is watching you. A girl came up to me in the hotel lobby interested in talking to an American. A student of comparative literature, she spoke a number of languages, including English, and she was eager to practice speaking it. As she talked to me about the difficulty of getting hold of Pasternak’s poetry, I noticed a tough-looking guy wandering around the lobby keeping his eyes on us. The girl had just taken out some pages of poetry by Pasternak. When she spotted the fellow, she very quickly stuffed the pages back into her purse.

The guy wandered quite close to us and the girl was visibly nervous. I had the feeling she was in danger, but I didn’t say anything. The man came over to a table beside us, his eyes never leaving the girl’s face, and crushed out a cigarette in the ashtray. He walked away and I couldn’t see where he went. Maybe he was still watching us. The girl leaned toward me and whispered, “He’s KGB.” The way she said it, the words themselves, I felt something cold running down my back.

“My boyfriend is involved with the Black Market,” she said, looking around the lobby. “I think that’s why they’re following me.” Then she again whispered, “Watch what you say to people.”

I excused myself and went upstairs to my room. I sat on the bed and let out a breath of relief. I couldn’t help feeling I had been a hair’s breadth away from being thrown into a Russian prison.

—Necronomicon, Tampa, FL, 1985

Images provided by Ted Krulik.
Top image, left to right: Devin, Trent, Roger, Judy, and Shannon Zelazny, 1982

zelazny-biographyTheodore Krulik’s encyclopedia of Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels, The Complete Amber Sourcebook, published in 1996 by Avon Books, is still the most exhaustive reference book on that revered series. Through his literary biography Roger Zelazny, published by Frederick Ungar Inc. in 1986, Krulik made accessible to the enthusiast the famed author’s personal concerns. For the first time, aficionados discovered the sources in Zelazny’s own life that inspired his writing. Other literary work includes essays on Richard Matheson in Critical Encounters II for Ungar, edited by Tom Staicar, and on James Gunn’s The Immortals in Death and the Serpent for Greenwood Press, edited by Carl Yoke and Donald Hassler. As a member of the Science Fiction Research Association, Krulik wrote a regular column for their newsletter in the 1980s and 90s entitled “The Shape of Films To Come.” Currently, he is writing a novel about a science fiction writer who gains remarkable powers to see into the minds of others. Krulik hopes to complete World Shaper by the end of 2017.

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