The One Book That Changed My Life Three Different Times

We’ve all read books that changed us, and in this new series, we ask SFF authors to tell us about one particular book that affected them in some important way — something as big as redirecting their life, or something as particular as changing their mind about a kind of story or a style of writing.

I was born into a sports family and by the time I entered college I was taking aim at a career as a sportswriter. I had good reason to think I’d make it: my father had been a catcher for the Red Sox, Phillies, and Cardinals and was a successful Triple-A manager in those days, so I grew up inside baseball. And I was a three-sport scholarship athlete in football, basketball, and baseball, so I knew those games well. I loved to read, I loved to write, and I knew my way around the diamonds, fields and courts. Sportswriting seemed natural, and by the time I was in college I was working for the school paper and also writing part-time for the local metro daily, covering high-school basketball and football. It was fun, it was easy, the paper published everything I wrote, and they paid me very well.

But within a few years I gave up that cushy sportswriting future and turned my attention to the much more difficult proposition of finding success as a science fiction writer, which wasn’t easy, and where most of what I wrote didn’t get published, and where they didn’t pay me very well at all. Why? Blame it on A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller.

Three times in my life I’ve bumped up against that famous novel, and each time it brought me back to science fiction.  

The first time was in high school. I went through the Catholic educational system in St. Louis, with the terrifying Sisters of Loretto in elementary school and then the stern but admirable Jesuits in high school. I wasn’t particularly religious, but I greatly admired the Jesuits (and still do). They wouldn’t allow a lunkhead jock, which I certainly was, to graduate from their high school without learning to love learning. Once they discovered that I loved to read, they gave me a free pass to the stacks of the very old but very fine high school library, where I found, to my great delight, dozens of science fiction books, from old classic juveniles like Tom Swift and His Motor-Cycle, published in 1910, to the then very recent A Canticle for Leibowitz, published in 1960. After reading a lot of articles in Sports Illustrated and Sport magazine, and devouring a couple of dozen Tom Swift books and a whole lot of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, I felt like I’d been struck by a thunderbolt by A Canticle for Leibowitz. I read it twice in the span of two weeks of study halls. It was Catholic, it was post-apocalyptic, and it was altogether mind-blowing science fiction. Immediately I set aside the sports magazines and the Nancy Drew mysteries that I had been reading and embraced the ambitious science-fiction novels of the day, from Samuel R. Delaney’s Babel-17 to Frank Herbert’s Dune to Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and many more.  

In college I started my writing career, but I took the easy way out and fell into sportswriting. Then, in grad school, came my second close encounter with A Canticle for Leibowitz.

I was nearly done with my master’s in English Lit when I stumbled into a class with a great professor, the late Dr. Roberta Bosse, who actually liked science fiction and fantasy. She urged me to write a term paper on A Canticle for Leibowitz, which she admired as much as I did, and so I read the novel again and, a little older and wiser, began to recognize the real merits of Walter Miller’s opus. It seemed to me that it held its own against the mainstream canon I was working my way through in my studies. I was lucky that Dr. Bosse agreed, pointing out that when the novel first came out in 1960, the Chicago Tribune gave it a front-page rave in its book review section and that other mainstream publications like Time magazine and The New Yorker had paid attention to it and, in some cases, admired it. The novel won the Hugo in 1961, and over time, the critical praise only grew. By the time I was a grad student, it was one of the field’s great classics. In re-reading it, this time with as much of a critical eye as I could muster, I was once again hooked. I wanted to be able to write this sort of thing, at whatever humble level I could reach.

Not long after finishing that master’s I attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and not long after that I began to sell short stories to the magazines. I was in heaven.

But it still wasn’t easy, and as I began a long teaching career I also went back to working for newspapers, mostly writing feature stories and working on the copy desk. I still wrote and sold some science fiction, but it took a back seat to teaching and newspaper work.

And then, in the early 1990s, I was writing a series of newspaper interviews with Florida writers for The Tampa Tribune and I jumped at the opportunity to drive over to Daytona Beach and interview Walter M. Miller in his home. He and his wife, Anne, were pleasant and welcoming. Walter and I chatted about his writing career and especially about A Canticle for Leibowitz. Walter hadn’t written another novel since Canticle, and he was philosophical about that, remarking that life had intervened and that he’d struggled for many years to write a kind of sequel and, as a matter of fact, he was close to done. Would I like to see it?

And so, sitting in a comfortable chair in Walter Miller’s house with his wife Anne looking on, I read large parts of the manuscript of the new novel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. He wanted to know if I liked it, and I said I liked it very much. It seemed nearly finished, I said, and he agreed that it was, but the work was slow. And so we talked some more, me taking notes, and then after a couple of hours I got back in my car and drove to my home on the West Coast of Florida, and I wrote that story about Walter M. Miller for The Tampa Tribune and received a nice note of thanks from him after the story ran.

Then, in August of 1995 Walter Miller’s wife, Anne, died. In January of 1996 Walter Miller took his own life.

He’d never quite finished Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, but he’d agreed that the very talented Terry Bisson would finish the book and it came out in 1997. The consensus was, I think, that it didn’t quite measure up to Canticle, but then, what could? I thought it was terrific.

I had drifted back into newspaper journalism there for a time, and away from much work on my science fiction. But talking to Walter Miller, and reading that manuscript, and thinking about how fleeting life can be, reminded me of what I’d like to think is my truer self, and back to the field I came in a hurry. I quite working at the Tribune and turned my writing attention completely to science fiction.  I wanted to establish myself as one of the people who wrote the work I so loved and admired. I wanted to be able to write something half as significant as A Canticle for Leibowitz.

I’m still trying to do that, and I’ll keep trying. And it occurs to me as I write this little essay that it’s been too long since I read Canticle. As soon as I hit send with this essay I’ll go to my bookshelves, grab the old paperback of Leibowitz I have from the 1970s, and read it again. There’s a lot to learn.  

alienmorningRick Wilber’s novel, Alien Morning, is an io9 top pick for November, and hailed as “the start of a great trilogy,” by Booklist. Wilber regularly publishes short fiction in Asimov’s and other magazines, and is at work on the second book of the trilogy, Alien Day.

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