Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Meeting Marion

I frequently am asked how I came to work with Marion Zimmer Bradley and to continue her Darkover series after her death. Senior author-junior author dual-bylines are not unusual these days, but each partnership has its own story. In this case, the answer centers around our long-established professional relationship. That in itself would be insufficient to produce a smooth collaboration, but it was how she knew my natural literary voice would match hers and why she trusted my understanding and love for her special world. In addition, I had respectable publication credentials in my own right, both novels and short fiction, and was not using the collaboration to establish my career; I was already a working professional writer.

To begin with, I met Marion by writing her a letter. This was back in 1980 and I had no idea fandom existed, but I felt so moved by her work that I wanted to let her know. Having been on the receiving end of such letters, I now appreciate what a thrill they are for an author. We hurl our creations into the void, send our literary children forth without any clue as to where they will end up; to learn that we have touched the hearts of our readers or helped them through a difficult time is wonderful beyond words.

Marion wrote back, three pages of single-spaced typewriting. At the time, she was on the Grievance Committee of SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America, as it was then) and used the official stationery. I now appreciate the prudence of that step, knowing the volume of fan mail she received over the years and her sad experiences of theft and exploitation by people she reached out to. We began a cautious correspondence, although I must confess to a certain giddiness that my favorite author had taken the care to write to me.
After several rounds of letters, Marion's secretary wrote that she was organizing a Fantasy Worlds Festival convention and how would I like to work security? I had a number of years' study in Chinese martial arts and had written to Marion about it. With glee, my kung fu partner and I agreed. So the first convention I attended was as part of the security team. The weekend also gave Marion and me the occasion to greet one another face to face, and that was the beginning of a personal relationship and many visits in each other's homes. Today, I think writers are more cautious--with good reason--but Marion was an unusually welcoming person and these were more trusting times.
Marion had read a little of my Darkover fiction for the fanzine she edited for Friends of Darkover, so when she began work on the first Sword & Sorceress, she invited me to send her a story for consideration. She bought that story and many others over the years, although she sent back stories with requests for revision. In preparing this blog, I went back and re-read some of her letters, wincing at the mistakes I had made and impressed with her kindness and patience in explaining "in words of one syllable," to use my favorite phrase, where I had gone wrong.

Marion edited not only Sword & Sorceress and its "overflow" volume, A Sense of Wonder, and Darkover anthologies, but her own MZB's Fantasy Magazine. Although she did not accept every story I sent to her, not by a long shot, in general she wanted to read what I wanted to write. As my prose-craft improved, I became more skillful in discerning which story ideas matched which market and how to develop them in ways that expressed my own creative voice. I needed to stretch my literary wings, to write stories beyond the fairly narrow restrictions of "MZB fantasy." Although I continued to submit regularly to Marion, I also sold stories to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Azimov's, Realms of Fantasy, and a host of other anthologies, including Star Wars: Tales from Jabba's Palace, DAW 30th Anniversary Fantasy Anthology, and Sister of the Night. (Most of these were under my former last name, Wheeler.)

Toward the end of her life, Marion suffered a series of strokes, which made it difficult for her to concentrate on novel-length stories. One solution to this problem was to work with a younger writer, supervising and editing as well as designing the story arc and characters. Marion tried collaborating with various writers, including Mercedes Lackey, whose own writing schedule proved too demanding for her to continue. I was one of the writers Marion considered because she had watched me develop from a novice to an established professional and knew my work, especially those stories I had written for the Darkover anthologies. She had seen what I could do in "her world," and often cited "The Death of Brendon Ensolare" (a "Lieutenant Kije" story set in the Thendaran City Guards) as one of her favorites.

We began work together as we had begun our relationship, first in correspondence, then in person. We'd settled on a time period and general story arc when I visited her for the last time. When I arrived at her home, she had been resting, on oxygen, but insisted on sitting up to talk. I knew she had been very ill, but seeing her made her condition so much more vivid for me. One of my best memories of her was watching her "come alive" as we discussed character and hatched plot points. Her eyes "glowed as if lit from within," to use one of her favorite descriptions, and energy suffused her whole being. I asked question after question and then sat back as she spun out answers. It was as if she had opened a window into her imagination and invited me to peek inside. Her secretary told me that she talked for days afterwards about the visit and how excited she was about the project.

She died a month later.

Marion had been a rock, an anchor, an inspiration, and a guide throughout my literary career. I expected we would have more time to work together, despite how desperately ill she was. I believed in the magic of that last visit.

It was magic. And, although I did not realize it at the time, it was also the passing of the torch.


  1. Thank You for sharing this! I remember submitting a short story, for a Darkover anthology, a long time ago. I was certainly a novice at writing. Marion only wrote a short note of a rejection letter, but she did take the time to correct / point out errors. That was something I really appreciated - it made me look at what I was writing. I've always enjoyed her work, and Darkover has been part of what inspires all the creative things I do in life.

  2. Marion was amazing in her encouragement of new writers. I don't think any other writer/editor has had the influence she did in fostering the next generation. The list of those whose stories first appeared in her anthologies and magazine and who then went on to significant careers is a long one, with many bright stars.

  3. Thank you, Ms Ross, for posting this. If I'm a fiction reader at all nowadays it's because when I was 14 years old I read the Mists of Avalon books, and I immediately became a diehard fan of Darkover the first time I read a book of the series. I love the books you wrote for the series as much as I love those written by Ms Bradley, and I look forward to others. I really wish all the books and anthologies of Darkover were republished, and I hope they will be one day. Also I wonder why the series isn't more famous. Do you think it is because of the controversial issues? Thanks for the articles. Best wishes!

  4. Hello, Ceridwen Taliesen! My suspicion - totally unbased in any objective facts - is that because the Darkover series as been around for a long time (the first story came out in 1962, iirc), the fandom has "aged." I would love to see a whole new generation of readers discover this marvelous world and its people - so pass the word! Reviewing the books and blogging about them is an excellent way to increase their visibility.

    Meanwhile, I'm close to finishing the next Darkover adventure, THE CHILDREN OF KINGS. Stay tuned!

  5. I believe I remember Marion juuuust a little tiny bit. At the time I was rather more interested in whatever books I could scrounge up than the boring adult talk. Kids.

    Kung fu partner = Phyllis, yes?