The Road Back: My Journey With David Hartwell

A second chance is a rare and precious thing. It’s an act of compassion. It’s a leap of faith. It’s the choice one person makes to raise up another.

This was David Hartwell’s gift to me.

Once upon what seems like another lifetime, I was 46 years old and struggling to pay my bills as a freelance editor, twenty-eight months after I was laid off from Simon & Schuster during the economic crash of 2008. Other houses followed soon after, eliminating jobs by the dozens. Senior editorial positions became scarce, and despite my relative success transitioning to freelance life, it began to feel as if my career was in a death spiral.

It was David who threw me a lifeline.

Early in 2011, a position opened up at Tor Books; a senior editor there needed a new assistant. Assistant editor, I remember thinking, after I’d leveled up to Senior at my last job. It seemed insane on the face of it. I would be starting over. From the bottom. In my mid-forties. But here’s the thing: I knew that if my luck changed and I actually got the job, it would mean working at Tor, for David Freaking Hartwell.

It’s no coincidence that Tor means “mountain,” and that the company takes the image of a jagged peak for its logo; in the landscape of speculative fiction publishing, I thought of Tor as the summit… and of David Hartwell as the mad god who made his home there.

Or so he had always seemed to me. At the time, I knew him only by reputation. I owned a few of his anthologies. I’d read authors he had edited: Gene Wolfe, Phillip K. Dick, Robert Sawyer, John M. Ford, so many others whose careers he had launched or cultivated. He’d won most of science fiction’s major literary awards, several of them multiple times. You couldn’t work in our profession and not know David’s name. It’s a cliché to call him a legend. It also falls utterly short of the truth.

The deeper truth is more sublime: David Hartwell was just a man in the triumphant twilight of his career, nearly seventy years old when I met him, and yet still ferociously passionate about his vocation—one that was defined not just by the way he nurtured authors, but editors as well. David believed in mentorship like no one else I’ve ever known; he felt that taking new editors under his wing was a responsibility, a solemn duty, and it was one he carried out joyfully.

I was told he considered many qualified applicants for the assistant’s position in 2011. What it was exactly he saw in me that tipped his decision in my favor, I may never know. Maybe it was the fact that we had similar professional histories: we had both been editors at S&S, we had both been stewards of the Star Trek novel line, and we had both been fired (albeit decades apart)—so it could be that he saw in me a kindred spirit. Maybe it was my marketing communications background that intrigued him, or my even earlier life as a bookseller, or my willingness to say “fuck it” and start my professional life over, from the bottom rung, and pull myself up again. Or maybe he just liked the fact that I was as passionate about science fiction and fantasy as he was.

Whatever the real reason, David chose me. He gave me a second chance. He invited me into a world I’d previously glimpsed only from the sidelines, he empowered me to discover what I was still capable of, and he encouraged me to reimagine who I could yet become.

And he became my friend. We swapped stories, we laughed, we drank, we fought, and we made great books together. He introduced me to some of the most amazing people I’ve ever known. He counseled me when I needed help. He celebrated with me when I began to build my own list. His victories were my victories, and mine became his.

And when I made senior editor again, less than four years after he hired me to be his assistant, David took me aside, put his hand on my shoulder, and told me he was proud of me.

I owe him a debt I can never repay.

…Except that isn’t quite true.

I’ve wept a lot since learning that David and I would never speak again. Never fight again. Never laugh again. But that sadness is braided with gratitude and optimism. Those of us who knew David and loved him are blessed not merely by the memory of him, but by the example he set, by the legacy he left, and by the boundless energy and passion with which he pursued his life’s work.

He left us a road map to show us the way forward.

Today I take my first step.

Marco Palmieri is a senior editor at Tor Books.

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