As a teenager, I was a huge fan of Roger Zelazny, author of the Amber series, Lord of Light, Isle of the Dead, Home is the Hangman, and a lot of other great books and stories. (Full disclosure, all book links are Amazon affiliate links).
Yeah, I know, I read the Inspirations in the sidebar on your homepage. But my fandom went deeper than that.
I was so much a fan that I applied to Case Western Reserve University solely because it was Zelazny’s alma mater. (I didn’t go, in part because I realized just what four years in Cleveland would be like (no offense, Clevelanders). The other part was, even with the scholarship I would have gotten to CWRU, Rice was still $10,000 less per year and had a more generous aid package).
Speaking of Rice, I regret very few things in my life, but one of them involves Rice and Roger Zelazny. My freshman year, I learned Zelazny would be coming to Houston to speak at an authors’ dinner. I decided I would go. I figured out bus routes, bought a hardcover edition of his short story collection Frost and Fire… and then realized I had a Calc I midterm exam the same evening.
My regret is that I was too naive to know I could have asked my prof if I could take the midterm early and he probably would have said yes. (One of the perks of Rice’s honor system). Instead, I took the midterm on the scheduled day and had no other chance to meet him before Zelazny’s death in 1995.
Of course I bought this book
With that personal history, I was of course interested as soon as I heard Warren Lapine planned to publish a collection of Zelazny’s letters to his lifelong friend Carl Yoke. The title Immer, Zlaz comes from a common closing to his letters. (Immer is the German word for always). I bought a copy as soon as the ebook edition reached the virtual shelves.
The earliest letter is from 1957 and the last is from 1993, two years before Zelazny’s death at the relatively young age of 58, of kidney failure arising from colon cancer. (Public service announcement: when the recommended time comes for you to get a colonoscopy, don’t put it off). Most of the letters are from Zelazny’s years in Santa Fe (from 1975).
If you’re a Zelazny fan (an Amberhead?), you’ll love it. You get glimpses of what books he worked on when. Be warned, the Santa Fe letters have a diary-like quality: the day’s weather, the latest malfunction of his 1982 Eagle (there’s a reason American Motors went out of business in the ’80s), where his kids were that day. (If you’re a Trent Zelazny fan, you can learn something about his youth).
There’s talk about the science fiction publishing business from the ’60s till the early ’90s, too. From narrowly avoiding the road trip that killed Lester Del Rey’s third wife to the lawsuit over theme park rights to Lord of Light (part of the backstory in the movie Argo), to befriending George R. R. Martin, there’s a lot of interest to historians of American science fiction. Though it took a trip for me to the Internet Science Fiction Database to figure out Dannie, author of “Last Night of the Festival,” a story Zelazny in 1970 believed would “endure the tests of time and literary criticism.” (Dannie Plachta, FWIW).
Zelazny was frank (to his lifelong friend) about the financial ups and downs of freelance fiction writing in that era. His early ‘80s annual income was equivalent to about $100k today (and that’s presumably with his mortgage paid off by the movie license to Damnation Alley). By the end of the decade, though, he had to borrow money from his agent and negotiate an installment plan for tuition payments for his kids’ private school.
There isn’t much writing advice. Yoke apparently tried his hand at writing science fiction every few years, would send Zelazny a story for review and comment, and then Yoke would put that aspiration aside for a while. (Yoke has published fiction in the past decade, I should check it out).
The most interesting thing Zelazny alludes to about writing is something he called Da Vinci syndrome, “the source of all the extra values that live in a good piece of writing.” His description of it is fragmentary, but it shines a flashlight on some of the machinery clanking away in the cavernous reaches of my subconscious. To quote a letter dated July 25, 1974:
…once you’ve got the reflexes installed and trained to cull out appropriate material from your total internal image of the world, then the more complete that image becomes [and] the greater the available choices. Here, too, I don’t think the range is linear. I once mentioned in passing something I called a Da Vinci syndrome, when speaking about educational theory. I believe that knowledge can hit a critical mass. I think that one’s total body of knowledge if one consciously directs its acquisition toward the building up of a full-spectrum world picture – will eventually come to function almost autonomously as an approximation of the world itself, so that the addition of any new material is no longer a simple additive process but, rather, will result in an exponential increase in the total that one possesses. It is not just a question of learning or not learning lots of stuff initially, but in deciding what should be learned and how much of it, in order to reach a critical mass as soon as possible, so that future learning, even if desultory-seeming to an outsider, will result in a great number of things being learned from the digestion of a single fact, rather than simply the fact itself.
Food for thought for those of us trying to level up our writing game.
Secrets still kept
Finally, the thing everyone is curious about is Zelazny’s last years: terminal cancer, the collapse of his three-decade marriage with Judy (neé Callahan), and his relationship with Jane Lindskold. The letters in Immer, Zlaz say nothing about any of that. Editor Lapine speculates in the introduction that long distance telephone calls had gotten cheap enough by the early 1990s to make voice rather than text Zelazny and Yoke’s preferred avenue of communication. He also said that he published every letter Yoke gave him.
That leaves only two explanations. Either Yoke held back some letters, to preserve his friend’s privacy and/or reputation almost thirty years after his death, or Zelazny never wrote them.
From the textual evidence, Zelazny never wrote about those topics.
If Yoke wanted to sanitize his friend’s life, he would have hidden some things Zelazny revealed about himself in these letters. Dabbling in black magic? Drinking over a fifth of liquor a day for over a year in the late ’60s? Taking his kids to swim class in hopes of eyeing moms in bikinis? Owning a .38 revolver? Supporting a Republican (Harrison Schmitt) for Senate in 1976? The full spectrum of the Roger Zelazny revealed in the letters argues that Yoke was willing to share the letters on a warts-and-all basis.
The other textual evidence is what isn’t in the letters. Zelazny’s last years weren’t the only time of emotional upheaval in his life. He had a broken engagement with folk singer Hedy West in 1961-62, and there’s the annus horribilis of September 1964 through mid-1965, when his father died, he almost died in a traffic accident, and he married and separated from first wife Sharon Steberl.
And just like his final year and a half, Zelazny wrote no letters to Yoke during any of those times.
Oh, those topics come up. Hedy West reached out to him at least twice in 1969, while her marriage was collapsing, in hopes of rekindling their relationship. Zelazny ghosted her.
1969 was also the first year Zelazny talks to Yoke about Sharon Steberl, and only then in the context of Yoke’s collapsing marriage and Zelazny’s provision of sympathy and family law advice. The next time he mentions her is 1985, by which time
my marriage to Sharon or the auto accident all just occupy shelf space in my memory now, from which I can take them down and look at them fairly dispassionately and put them back or else just leave them.
If Zelazny felt like that twenty years after the fact, there’s no reason Yoke would bury hypothetical letters Zelazny might have written in the mid ’60s about his disastrous first marraige when sharing everything else with editor Lapine in the 2020s. Which strongly suggests Zelazny never wrote any letters about his annus horribilis, or Hedy West, or Judy, or Jane, or the cancer devouring his guts.
If you’re an Amberhead, the only reason you haven’t yet bought Immer, Zlaz is because you didn’t know it was out there. And if you’re not a Zelazny fan, go pick up those books I mentioned in the first paragraph. The Zelazny of those books might pull you in, with his mix of the poetic and the earthy, the mythological and the realistic, science like magic and magic like science. If he does, this book will be waiting for you when you’re ready.