Terry Bisson: Editor, Mentor, and Friend

When I met Terry Bisson, I had thought he was already dead.

I had just moved to the Bay, and someone told me about the monthly event with Tachyon Publications that he emceed: SF in SF. I was a brand-new writer, trying to make the scene. And when I walked in, there he was.

After the event, I got in line to shake his hand and speak to him. I was so shocked he was still around, still working. He had this unshakeable Kentucky accent and a firm grip.

“Your story changed my life,” I said, earnest as anything. “It made me want to become a writer.”

“Which story?” he asked, as any writer would.

“‘They’re Made of Meat’,” I answered without hesitation.

I had read his most most famous work of fiction when I was a freshman in high school. I remember (ironically) that it made me feel as though I had left my body. A story about how human life is brief and tragic and rooted always in the utterly ridiculous concept of intelligent meat hit me dead center and aligned me on my own mortality, the importance of the body in fiction, and the kind of irony a good writer can apply to tragedy without coming off as jaded or aloof.

Terry laughed. “It’s always that one,” he said.

Later, when my first book came out, when I had sold my first stories, I was a guest at SF in SF. Terry was gracious and easygoing, but when it came time for questions he asked me pointed ones about several of my publications; the kind of questions that let you know someone is reading carefully. I was flattered, I was touched.

PM Press approached me about writing a collection for their Outspoken Authors series. I wanted to be part of it, wanted to belong to the same club as Corey Doctorow and Nalo Hopkinson and Sam Delaney. I felt like I hadn’t earned it yet. I had only just begun, really. I had three books out and felt as though I was just past the throat-clearing stage of my career.

I said yes anyway, partly because of my desire to be one of the cool kids. But also because the series editor was Terry Bisson.

In the years since then, I’ve learned that “editor” means a lot of different things. Sometimes it’s entirely hands-off; just the person who collects the stories and authorizes the checks. Sometimes it’s someone who makes sure that your copy is clean and you’re not completely full of shit in your assertions. Terry was the other kind of editor: the kind who received work as submitted and told you straight: this is good, this is bad. This piece could be better, because you’re that good. He was a blacksmith, evaulating the raw material with a shrewd eye, and then applying the heat and the hammer to make us harder, sharper, stronger.

We mostly dealt in emails while I was working on Big Girl. He requested some of my previously published work, and I sent others that would be brand new. He was forthright about the ones he thought didn’t make the cut. Most importantly, he read the first draft of “The Pill.”

“The Pill” is my best published work to date. It’s a novelette that was nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Sturgeon awards. It’s gotten me more fan mail (good, bad, and ugly) than I’ve received for any other single work. It’s some of my angriest, most honest writing and I’m still shocked sometimes that I showed it to anyone.

I showed it to Terry first.

The original draft of “The Pill” was just a long short story, clocking in at about 10,000 words. It elided a lot of the most visceral parts, letting things slide through in mention instead of in scenes. We met in person only once, but I’ll never forget it. He said some things directly to my face that most authors and editors are too polite to say. His compliments on my work will stay with me forever. His suggestions for improvement I took as directives and employed immediately.

Most importantly, he told me that “The Pill” was the real centerpiece of my collection, despite the inclusion of the titular story I had published in F&SF, “Big Girl.” He told me he saw the trick I was pulling, how “deceptively slight” and “almost offhand” my style on it was. And he urged me to go back to it and give it all the flesh (ha!) it deserved.

“The Pill” became the novelette that it is because of his help.

He stuck with me through the whole process of creating the book, then interviewed me in his own style; asking me what car I drove and laughing in that wicked way of his. When it debuted, he was proud of it and of me, and he said so. I felt like I was taking the baton in a relay race, being passed some of the inimitable power of the writers who had come before me in science fiction and showed me what the genre could really do. He made sure my grip on it was secure before he let go, and I know I was far from unique in that regard. His generosity is one of the things everyone knew about him.

This morning someone texted me the news that he had died. I had time to think about all the nights I had seen him drunk at parties, laughing his ass off, telling stories of his own. I remembered all the times he had described how weird it was to find a Chinese radio play of “They’re Made of Meat” and come to grips with the legacy of a story that’s less than a thousand words long and reaches people in every language, year after year. I thought about the night at the Locus Christmas party when he had offered me one of his hand-rolled unfiltered cigarettes under the stars.

I don’t smoke, but I figured I might never again have the opportunity to smoke the spit of a genius like him.

Inhale, inhale, inhale.

Thank you, Terry.

Liked it? Take a second to support Meg Elison on Patreon!

3 thoughts on “Terry Bisson: Editor, Mentor, and Friend

Leave a Reply