Jun 20 2011 6:05pm

Mr. Modesitt & Me

L.E. Modesitt, Jr. was the second professional writer I ever met—as well as the second science fiction writer and second Tor writer, in fact which perhaps explains some of my lifelong fondness for both SF and Tor. (The other writer, by the way, was James Patrick Kelly, about whom I’ve written elsewhere.)

I first met the man I still mostly think of as Mr. Modesitt in, I think, the winter of 1990, or maybe the fall of 1989. He and his family had recently moved to New Hampshire, and his daughter attended my school. He came to talk to an afterschool club I was a member of, and eventually he and I started corresponding—I know it was before the summer of 1990, because he sent me an advanced copy of the cover for The Ecologic Secession, which was, at least according to ISFDB, released in July 1990.

For a summer job, I usually worked at the Plymouth State College Bookstore, stocking the shelves for the coming semester. That fall, Modesitt would be teaching an intro to lit class, and I vividly remember putting his books onto the shelf—including, I believe, Gordon Dickson’s Soldier, Ask Not and Sherri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country. Seeing those books alongside big intro to lit anthologies and books by folks like Shakespeare and Kafka warmed my heart.

And then came The Magic of Recluce. I had known Modesitt was working on a fantasy novel, and I had been disappointed at this news, because at the time I considered science fiction to be the only thing worth reading. I had tried reading Tolkien, I had tried reading L’Engle, I had tried reading Moorcock, and none of it interested me.

When The Magic of Recluce was published, my parents gave me the hardcover as a gift, and I started reading it with teeth gritted in disgust. The righteous disgust of a 15-year-old is a powerful force, but it was a force Recluce overcame within fifty or sixty pages. What Harry Potter has been for millions of young people, The Magic of Recluce was for me—a book that obliterated everyday reality, a book whose words expanded to vast worlds in my imagination. It’s a good thing I’d gotten the book in hardcover; I read and reread it so much, the paperback would have fallen apart.

Soon after Recluce was released, I came across a copy of the venerable fanzine Niekas, published in nearby Center Harbor, New Hampshire. The many book reviews in the back fascinated me, and for some reason, I thought, “I could do that!” The problem was, I could never afford to buy books new, and none of the local libraries bought much in the way of new SF, so I doubted I could ever become a book reviewer.

Except I now had a brand-new hardcover of The Magic of Recluce.

I probably have a copy of the issue of Niekas that includes my review of Recluce, but if I do, it’s buried in a box somewhere. I’m not going to go out of my way to find it; it’s one of those things best left to memory. What I remember is that it was, of course, positive, and that I worked very hard not to gush. My impulse was to write something along the lines of, “This is the greatest book written in the last 25 years, and if you disagree with me, you are an IDIOT!”

Thankfully, I didn’t write that. I liked reading book reviews, so I knew it was best not to gush. I tried to sound reasonable. I struggled the hardest to try to identify a flaw, because I thought that my praise would be taken more seriously if I could prove that I didn’t just worship the book. I struggled against my sense that this novel was a work of perfection, and finally realized there was one thing I could complain about. I’d had some difficulty imagining the geography of Recluce, and I was then, as I remain, fond of maps, so the one complaint in the review is that the book did not contain a map.

When later Recluce books started including maps, I felt a bit like King Gama in Princess Ida when he sang,

Oh don’t the days seem lank and long
When all goes right and nothing goes wrong;
And isn’t your life extremely flat
With nothing whatever to grumble at!

When the second Recluce novel, The Towers of the Sunset, came out, I read it with great excitement, but it would never be the same excitement as The Magic of Recluce had provided, because such experiences are fleeting and rare, fostered by a perfect convergence of mood and material. My contempt for fantasy had been the key; the first book had shattered that contempt and opened new worlds of wonder—at best, the second book could only extend that wonder. It did, but I was still disappointed. I wanted a lifetime of first times.

One thing that amuses me now about my first reaction to The Towers of the Sunset is that I was perplexed and annoyed by its present-tense narration. Present tense narration is not a particularly avant-garde technique—indeed, the great experimental writer and critic William Gass even published an essay in 1987 called “A Failing Grade for the Present Tense”—but I struggled with it. I needed some hook on which to hang my disappointment that no book would be for me what The Magic of Recluce had been.

Soon after The Towers of the Sunset was released, the Modesitt family moved west. It was mostly my mother’s fault. She worked at Plymouth State, and one day at lunch happened to introduce Lee to a brilliant music and voice teacher named Carol. Eventually, they were married, and then Carol got a job in Utah.

And twenty years have passed. It certainly doesn’t feel it. I’ve published a lot of book reviews since that first one, and I now find myself teaching at Plymouth State University and assigning Shakespeare, Kafka, and science fiction to undergraduates. I remember first opening The Magic of Recluce as if it were just a few weeks ago. Somehow, in those few weeks, fifteen other Recluce books have been published.

Magic, I tell you, magic....

Matthew Cheney’s work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including Weird Tales, One Story, Locus, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and the anthologies Interfictions and Logorrhea. He is a regular columnist for Strange Horizons and BSC Review, and his blog, The Mumpsimus was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005.

Nathan Martin
2. lerris
I don't think it should surprise anyone that I am a fan.
Hugh Arai
3. HArai
@lerris: Not exactly a shock given your username, no. :)
Cathy Mullican
4. nolly
I cam across The Magic of Recluce on a family vacation when I was 13 or 14. I'd read and re-read the books I brought with me, and we stopped at a Wal-mart or something, somewhere along the way, and I picked out a couple of books. That was one, and I read and re-read it.

The Daring Young Man on the Wind Bearing Skis was my first encounter with filk, a few years before I learned the word. (I learned about it when I found a copy of the anthology Carmen Miranda's Ghost is Haunting Space Station Three at a used book store near my HS.)

I kept up with the series through college, then fell behind; I'm re-reading them now, intending to catch up to the ones I haven't read yet. My college roommate was a fan, too, and emailed with him for a while.

This is my coworker's site, with which I have helped a bit:

I think the Ghosts books are my favorites, though I haven't read a couple of his newer series.

I have yet to actually meet him. Perhaps at Reno or WFC this year.
5. wyoarmadillo
I have always enjoyed his books. I was still in high school when I first read the Magic of Recluce and enjoyed it very much. I found the Towers of the Sunset and the Magic Engineer to be among my favorite works for a time.

I still eagerly await his new books both Fantasy and Science Fiction
Kristoff Bergenholm
6. Magentawolf
I think I started this series with the Magic Engineer, then immediately went and got everything else I could in the Recluse saga, and tried his other settings, too.

Unfortunately, the style of writing eventually drove me half-mad with the way he did all of those overheard conversations, the horses, ponies, etc. wuffling, and other niggling little details that didn't really need such a big deal made out of them.
7. FaeEliseLiz
Not sure when Dad came and spoke, but I was at Newfound Memorial Middle School for fifth grade (1989 -1990 school year) and you were in eighth grade then, according to the yearbook. I would not use the term "family" in describing the move to Utah, though. Dad and Carol moved to Utah, and myself and my younger sister stayed in New Hampshire with our mother.
cornelius petrus
8. reader4ever
i was lucky enough to start with this book and loved it, to be honest i always thought the writer was a lady
9. George A. Trosper
I think Lee Modessit would be pleased that you could think he was female (despite the "Jr.", which no true lady should attach to her name). He tries very hard to be truthful about his depiction of both genders, and believes he's aided very much by long living among a wife and daughters.

If you see him on a con panel, reader4ever, you're in for a treat. He's insightful, informed, and well-spoken in his work at ConDuit in Salt Lake City.

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