Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2004/5

In 1968, I invited myself to visit the Hugo-winning SF writer, Jack Vance, a visit that I've described elsewhere. I'm delighted that David read what I wrote then - and shares the joy of

A Visit With Jack Vance: 2004

David B. Williams

Fifty-nine years is a long career for a writer in the SF/F genres. Not a record - Jack Williamson holds that one, hands down. But for someone who was already 29 when his first story was published, 59 years is a good long run. That someone is Jack Vance, whose latest novel, Lurulu, will be [was] published by Tor in December.

Vance was once dubbed "the invisible man of science fiction," but that's not really fair. He did refuse to release photos or more than a line or two of biographical information, especially in the early years, in the belief that an author's work should speak for itself. He didn't care to make his living with his personality, he once explained, and he thought that information about the writer might influence a reader's response to the story.

But Vance hasn't been a recluse. He has been a guest of honor at more than a dozen conventions including Worldcon, has given a number of interviews, and has even welcomed visiting fans to his home.

For example, in November 1967, a brash freshman at the University of California-Berkeley named Guy H. Lillian III phoned Jack Vance and asked if he could come over and meet the Hugo-winning writer, who lived nearby in the Oakland hills.

Later, an older and wiser Guy cringed with remorse for intruding upon Vance's time and attention. "What a toad I was. I invited myself to a man's house and took up an hour of his time with nonsense. I dared project my Berkeleyan insolence toward men who worked for a living onto a being of accomplishment and purpose."

When I visited Jack Vance in July 2004, I lacked Guy's qualms because I had a standing invitation. I met Jack and Norma Vance when he was a Guest of Honor at Marcon 38 in 2003. Norma had given me their phone number and encouraged me to call whenever I found myself in the Bay Area. As an avid admirer of Vance since reading "The Miracle Workers" in the July 1958 Astounding, you bet I did.

The first member of the Vance household Guy met was a snoozing cat. Felines have been a fixture at the Vance home from the beginning. When they moved to the Oakland hills in 1954, five cats moved with them. Three are in residence today, and a chocolate Labrador.

Guy met Jack Vance from the bottom up, as the writer descended a ladder. In 1967, Vance was in the middle of a years-long, multi-phase remodeling and expansion of his house. When Jack and Norma bought the place, it comprised three hillside lots and "a rustic cottage" in Norma's words or "a chicken shack" in Jack's estimation. Vance worked as a professional carpenter while building his career as a writer, so he was well prepared to do the job himself.

At the time, Vance was 51 years old. Guy discovered "a much larger man than I'd imagined with a paunch, glasses, thinning hair." Vance had already established his reputation as a refined and quirky stylist, leading readers to imagine a pale, bookish aesthete, not the burly fellow with powerful forearms and thick fingers who actually wrote such vivid descriptive passages and elegant dialog.

Vance had just won a Hugo and a Nebula for "The Last Castle" to add to the Hugo for "The Dragon Masters" in 1963 and an Edgar Award for best new mystery writer of 1960. Berkley Books had just published The Palace of Love, third of Vance's Demon Princes series, and in a few months Ace would begin issuing the four-novel Planet of Adventure or Tschai series.

A lot has happened since then. Vance has published another 60 novels and collections, boosting his lifetime score to about 90. In 1980, Vance was Guest of Honor at World Fantasy Con, in 1985 at NASFiC, and in 1992 at Worldcon. In 1997, 52 years after the appearance of his first story in the Summer 1945 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, the SFWA named Vance a Grand Master in recognition of his contributions to the field of fantastic literature.

When I visited in 2004, Vance was a few weeks short of his 88th birthday. The paunch is more expansive, the hair is even thinner, but the thick eyeglasses are gone. During the 1980s, glaucoma gradually robbed Vance of his already-poor eyesight. By a happy coincidence, word processing technology developed just when he was no longer able to continue writing with pen and paper (he always wrote longhand; Norma typed his manuscripts).

As the years passed and his vision continued to dim, Vance's technological support was progressively enhanced: first with small projections added to the keyboard to assist navigation, then with a 30-inch monitor that displayed large 32-character lines of text, and finally a speech synthesizer that reads back what he writes in a peculiar little robotic voice.

Needless to say, blindness has slowed Vance's writing. "Before, I could read up and down the page and get a sense of the flow of the material; now, with my eyes out, I have to try to pick out the flow of the stuff via what the voice tells me. I have to go back and forth, make sure that it isn't just a jumble of disconnected phrases. I have to do it via my ears, and go back and forth a sentence or two. If I'm really audacious, I go back several sentences."

Though writing has become such a tedious and frustrating process, Vance has remained philosophical about the difficulties: "I'm not bellyaching too much. I just bellyache a little bit."

Norma and son John provide essential assistance. John processes the files for such things as margins and formatting; Norma, as always, reads the text for meaning, raising questions and calling attention to inconsistencies. Thanks to word processing, of course, her days of actually typing all the manuscripts are history.

Though an advanced octogenarian, Vance's talents are as sharp as ever. His two most recent novels, Night Lamp and Ports of Call, are indistinguishable in wit and imagination from his works in decades past. When asked how a writer can keep producing good work into his ninth decade, Vance says: "First, don't get Alzheimer's." He has taken his own advice. His voice doesn't have an old man's timbre, and in conversation he is quick and expressive.

Today Vance considers himself "semi-retired." Since delivering Lurulu to his editor at Tor, he has begun a new work but without contract, deadline, or certain expectation of ever completing it. But writing is what he does, he explains, and after sixty years of doing it, he would feel at loose ends if he didn't have a work in progress, something to keep his mind occupied. "I'm just writing under my own steam," he says, "but I hope I'll get this book out."

When Guy visited in 1967, Vance was framing a new addition to his house, one of several expansions over the years. Today the large residence, a far cry from the original cottage, climbs the hillside on three levels. A few years ago, Jack and Norma traded houses with their son John II, who had a small house and a family. When I visited, the senior Vances had just moved back to the big house, which now shelters three generations of Vances, Jack and Norma downstairs, son John and his wife Tammy and their children upstairs.

The house bears witness to Jack and Norma's extensive world travels; one room boasts hand-carved walnut ceiling panels from Kashmir, the breakfast nook is lined with Koa wood from Hawaii. In 1967, Guy happened to catch the Vances at home between trips: in 1965 they had been in the South Pacific and Australia ("The Last Castle" was written in Tahiti), in 1969 they would leave for an extended stay in Europe. Many of Vance's stories and novels from the 1950s to 1970s were written in whole or part in foreign lands.

I wondered whether Vance found it difficult to write in strange surroundings, as some writers do. No, he answered, he began writing in the Merchant Marine during World War II, sitting on deck with a clipboard on his knee. And that's what he continued to do, whether in Mexico, Ireland, Morocco, South Africa, Pakistan, Tahiti, or at home in Oakland.

In 1967 Guy was surprised by Vance's "just my job" attitude toward writing. Vance hasn't changed in this regard. When asked what aspect of his work has given him the most satisfaction, he has a quick response: "Getting the check. I'm not fooling!" Yet the care that Vance invests in his writing - the constant revisions until he has achieved the effect he wants, the way he fumes when he learns that yet another editor has tinkered with his carefully crafted sentences - shows he is an artist; he simply has no patience with artistic poses.

Perhaps the greatest encomium of Vance's long career began in 1999 with the Vance Integral Edition project. The VIE is an all-volunteer, international campaign by his devoted readers to publish a homogeneous edition of all Vance's works in 44 volumes. The project has been conducted almost entirely via the Internet, and more than 400 individuals have performed at least one task in the process.

Each story and novel has been checked against original manuscripts or various published editions to restore Vance's texts as nearly as possible to his original wording. About 600 subscribers around the world have signed up at a cost of $1,400 or more. Microsoft mogul Paul Allen, a big Vance fan, induced one of his foundations to purchase 50 sets for libraries. The first 22 volumes have been delivered to subscribers and the second 22 are almost ready for the press.

Jack Vance, the premier wordsmith, gropes for the right word to express his reaction to the VIE project. He doesn't think "grateful" is apropos; "pleased and honored" more nearly fit. He marvels at the enormous effort that has been invested in restoring his work and producing a uniform, classy edition. "I can't see the books myself, but everybody who has the books admires them tremendously."

When he isn't writing, Vance is "reading" spoken-word books on science, history, geography (never SF) and he likes mysteries, especially the novels of M. C. Beaton. He also spends a lot of time cataloging his vast collection of classic jazz and transferring the old records and tapes to CDs. Music has always been very important to Vance, and he considers classic jazz of the 1920s and 30s as the noblest of musical art forms.

If Vance's production of new work has slowed, one benefit of a six-decade career is a long backlist of books that publishers can re-issue. In the past few years, Tor has published omnibus editions of Vance's four Dying Earth novels and the three Alastor Cluster novels. Gollancz also issued the Dying Earth omnibus and reprinted Big Planet, The Blue World, Emphyrio, and the Lyonesse series. iBooks has used the corrected VIE texts to publish new editions of "The Dragon Masters" (with "The Last Castle"), The Gray Prince, Maske: Thaery, To Live Forever and The Languages of Pao.

For two hours, Jack and I sat at his kitchen table, sipping beers and discussing cosmology, the dispersion of the Indo-European language groups, the construction of the re-curved compound bow, the deficiencies of egalitarianism, the lamentable state of English orthography, and other subjects. But like a Jack Vance novel, all good things come to an end. Before I left, Norma gave me a tour of the house and I had a chance to examine the layout and the many souvenirs and photos displayed on walls and shelves, a record of long lives well lived.

When we returned downstairs, we found Jack dozing in his chair.


Beneath the surface of Tschai, the Pnume continue to record the events of the passing millennia and add to the exhibits in Foreverness; on Dar Sai, bungle boys leap and caper to the snap of Darsh whips; under a dying sun, not far from the ancient city Kaiin, the golden witch Lith adds another thread to her tapestry while Chun the Unavoidable enlarges his ocular robe.


I didn't wake Jack Vance just to say goodbye. Let the dreamer dream. 


[ HOME ]     [ Contents Issue #21 ]     [ Current Issue ]     [ Archives ]

Challenger is © 2003-2005 by Guy H. Lillian III.
All rights revert to contributors upon initial print and website publication.