Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Fritz Leiber and I: A Very Belated Tribute

In the fall of 1982, I was in a small used bookstore, located on a side street off Delmar Avenue, with my new friend Steffon. We were both freshman art majors at Washington University in St. Louis. It turned out that Steffon’s stepfather was the owner of the little store. I somehow got into a conversation with his stepfather about Fritz Leiber, for Fritz was my favorite author after only discovering him three years before in a Hugo Winners anthology. The story was Ill Met in Lankhmar, and it would not be an exaggeration to say the story changed my life. I read everything I could by Leiber after that.
So, I was surprised when Steffon’s stepfather told me this: he knew the owners of a small bookstore in San Francisco that Fritz Leiber frequented, and these two guys were friends with Fritz. Steffon’s stepfather told me that if I gave him a letter, he would send it to the store and the owners there would make sure that Fritz got it.
I left the store very excited. And I never sent a letter.
It would be impossible for me to explain why, because I don’t remember. Who can explain the foolish actions and inactions of a man, a boy really, in his late teens? I think that possibly I didn’t want to bother Mr. Leiber. Surely he had more important things to do than hear from fawning fanboys in the Midwest. And, I probably didn’t know what to say.
“Gosh, I love your stories.”
I suppose it was a reflection of my low self esteem at the time, to think that I would be bothering Mr. Leiber with my letter. Now, as a writer, I realize how absurd that is. And, I have since learned that Fritz wrote back to everyone that made the effort to write to him, often sending same letter back with replies written on the what space was available on the paper (very direct and economic, Fritz!).
But perhaps, and this is a terrible possibility, I was simply lazy, and felt it wasn’t important enough at the time. I had more important things to do, like getting good grades in a major university and preparing to become a great illustrator in New York City (my dream at the time). And, after all, it was only fantasy, as much as I loved it.
Only fantasy. How I have since learned the error of my ways.
Not writing to Fritz Leiber, the man I consider my literary father, and whom, in my own unexplainable way, I feel as close to as a blood relative, is one of the greatest regrets of my life. And, honestly, I don’t have many. One simple letter and it is possible that Fritz and I may have enjoyed a lifelong correspondence, and even a friendship, which would have meant so much to me.
Although I never met Fritz, I feel as if I have. His stories, which I have continually read and re-read over the last thirty years, have brought me so much joy and an appreciation for the mystery of life, more than any other author. And along with writers like Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard and Philip K. Dick and Dashiell Hammett and many others, he has taught me how to write. For the only way to really learn how to write is to read and re-read the stories you love, and to invest your time in understanding the world around you, understanding how you feel about it, and understanding yourself. A great writer can teach us so much about the world and about ourselves. No one has taught me more than Fritz Leiber.
I hope that my stories, whether they be my fantasy stories set in my world called Plemora, featuring Lucky and Blue, or the Incomparable Quill, or Dersula of the Dark, or my science fiction stories featuring Tomorrow Girl, or my horror stories that are heavy on mood and dread and light on violence, can give people even a fraction of the joy and appreciation for the mystery of life as Fritz Leiber has given me.
Apart from reading his stories, I tried in my own way, after his death in the mid-nineties, to reach out to Fritz. I happened to move to San Francisco about two years after his death. While I lived there, I visited the locations of the two apartments where he lived and gazed up, thinking about him living there and writing such great stories as The Button Molder. And after I moved to Los Angeles (where he also lived a great part of his life), I took a trip back up to San Francisco and finally found the park I thought was a figment of his fertile imagination: Corona Heights, where Franz Westen first saw the pale brown thing in Our Lady or Darkness. I took a small, smooth, dark-gray rock back from those prehistoric looking rock formations and keep it always in my desk drawer to remind me of Fritz.
There is nothing to be done with regret but to let it go. I have mostly done so. At times, I still have a twinge, realizing I missed an opportunity as a foolish young man so many years ago, and that my life might have even taken a different course, had I but acted. But mostly, I try to live up to the standard Fritz Leiber set for me, and to write stories that will give others as much as he has given to me and will continue to give to me as long as I live.
I’m sorry I didn’t write, Fritz. I hope it’s not too late and you’re reading this now.
I finally realize, all those years ago, all I really needed to say to you was...