Saturday, February 28, 2009

Meeting and Working with Philip José Farmer

A long time ago, in a town a couple hundred miles up the road, I stopped into my favorite bookstore, Kroch & Brentano's, at lunchtime and headed downstairs to where the paperback novels were kept. The place was a cultural Fort Knox to me: row after row, shelf after shelf, of great reads, each and every book face out, titles, author's names, and cover art all screaming, "Buy me!" That day, one book called out more clearly than any other: Philip José Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

It's the ultimate story of reincarnation. Everyone who ever lived on Earth is reborn as a young, vigorous adult along the banks of the Riverworld. Food, drink, and drugs are all provided free of charge by Grailstones. Maybe that's not everybody's idea of paradise, but it's an intriguing take on the theme. Close enough to say, "Here you go, people. Let's see what you can make of this." Reading what Phil Farmer made of it was a real joy. As was rereading it many a time.

Years later, having had two novels of my own published, with a third on the way, a lady named Maggie Nelson called me. Maggie did publicity for the Peoria (IL) Public Library. She asked if I would be interested in writing a chapter of a round-robin novel (a different author for each chapter) to be called Naked Came the Farmer. The proceeds from the sales of the book would benefit the library. Being a lifelong lover of libraries, I said yes.

Great move on my part. The guiding light of the project, and writer of the first chapter, was Phil Farmer. Meeting him was like a rookie being introduced to Hank Aaron. You know you've got a long way to go before you might ever be mentioned in the same breath. Philip José Farmer published 75 novels over his lifetime.

Phil passed away last Wednesday, February 25, 2009. He was 91 years old. It was reported he died peacefully as he slept.

In the handful of times I got to spend with Phil, I found him to be smart, funny, unassuming, and generous. On the occasion of the release of a new edition of To Your Scattered Bodies Go, my wife, my daughter, and I traveled to Peoria, where he lived, to hear him speak (at a branch of the public library, naturally enough) and to buy a new copy of his book and have him sign it for me.

Phil had previously honored me by purchasing a copy of my third book, The Next President, and asking me to sign it for him. Then he took matters a step further. He sent me a handwritten letter to let me know what he thought of my book. I lifted a line from it to use as the first review I posted on the home page of my website.

The way these things sometimes work is you cherry-pick the words that make you look good and omit the rest. But what follows is the entire message:

Dear Joe,
"Your near-future novel, The Next President, riveted me. It's been a very long time since I've read such a vivid and intriguingly complex novel of 3-dimensional characters coupled with such a murky mystery. Congratulations!"
Philip José Farmer

If sharing that sounds a bit self-congratulatory, it is. But ask yourself if you'd keep quiet if Hank Aaron complimented you on how well you hit a baseball.

Thanks, Phil. I only wish I'd met you sooner.

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