A WisCon 2006 memory – the fan letter

I leave for WisCon in a couple of days, and I wanted to revisit something I wrote while at WisCon 2006. To understand this, there are a few things I should tell my readers who aren’t familiar with science fiction.

James Tiptree, Jr., whose real name was Alice Sheldon, was one of the best science fiction writers in the history of the genre; she died by suicide in 1987. Because her gender wasn’t known until long after she’d become well-known, and because she addressed gender issues in her fiction, the Tiptree Award is named for her.

Carol Emshwiller is one of the most interesting writers in the sf genre. She’s now in her eighties. The collection of her stories to which I refer was published in 1974. Samuel R. Delany is another top writer and scholar in the field.

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Friends of mine came to WisCon this year for the first time, and decided they wanted to contribute something handmade to the Tiptree Auction. Once their item was out on display in the art room, they brought me by to see it. While I was there I looked at the other things.

Towards the end of the table, I found a manila folder, whose tag said something like “fan letter.” I opened it.

My heart stopped, or my breathing, or something. I found myself reading it aloud, slowly. It was beautifully written, a gushing fan letter full of complex clauses and humor and self-deprecation and admiration for Carol Emshwiller’s collection Joy in Our Cause. The letter was dated, if I remember right, 24 May 75. It had been written by James Tiptree, Jr., or “Tip.” Her signature was at the bottom, her perfectly ordinary home address embossed on the top corner. She had gotten Carol’s address from the SFWA directory, she said. Carol would laugh, she said, seeing how she rationed the book out. Carol didn’t have to feel obligated to reply, she could send the letter to her circular file if she wanted. There was a small stain from coffee, perhaps, and a creased corner. I touched it. It struck me more forcefully, physically, than the first time I touched a genuine archaeological artifact.

Later, I dragged several people into the room to see it, without telling them first why. Each time it was like it was new again. That such a thing could be in the world!

Carol never wrote back. She was too overwhelmed, too shy. I went up to her later in the Green Room and thanked her for donating the letter, thanked her for allowing me and the rest of us to see it. First, she said, “Wasn’t it beautifully written?” She said she couldn’t possibly have written anything as lovely in reply. After she read it, she told me, she forgot about the letter. I suggested maybe she’d just been thinking about it in the back of her mind. She said, “No, it was if it had never happened.” I said, “Maybe it was scary.” She said, after a moment’s thought, “Yes, maybe that was it.” She put the letter away, not finding it again until a couple of years ago, “And it was like a new thing.”

Now, Carol said, she would have replied, to thank Alice Sheldon for the lovely letter (or, probably, thanked Tip).

The real end of the conversation, though, was when Chip Delany, across the table, said that he had once gotten a letter from Tip, and it was now lost.

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About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen’s first erotic novel, The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom and Their Lover (Harlequin Spice, December 2008), was translated into French and German. Her second Spice novel, The Moonlight Mistress (December 2009), was translated into Italian and nominated for a RT Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Award. Her third novel is The Duke & The Pirate Queen (December 2010). She has also published erotic short stories as Elspeth Potter. Her blog features professional writing and marketing tips, genre discussion, book reviews, and occasional author interviews.
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