Jack Vance is my favorite writer. What follows is an essay I wrote which was published in one of the progress reports for Magicon, the Orlando World Science Fiction Convention in 1992, at which Jack was Guest of Honor.
A Visit to Jack Vance
by Joe Bergeron
When I was a dreamy teenager I picked up the Lancer edition of The Dying Earth and was immediately lost in its sensual pleasures. While it became one of my favorite books, for some reason I didn't read any other Vance for a long time. I had the feeling that in The Dying Earth I had read Vance's masterpiece, and that anything else must inevitably be a disappointment.
Luckily for that benighted boy, in 1980 my friend Terry Sisk (Graybill) acquainted me with books like the Demon Princes and Tschai series. I became a Vance collector, reading and loving everything I could find. I tried my hand at Vance-related art, but an early painting based on The Dying Earth failed to satisfy me. I desisted until Araminta Station appeared in 1987. My painting of Glawen and Sessily seemed good enough that I thought Jack Vance himself might be interested in seeing it. I wrote to him and included a photograph of the painting. He replied with a hand-written letter of praise. Encouraged, I wrote a longer letter that talked about his writing. He answered that if I was ever in his area I should come and stay at his house (my emphasis)! I'd been looking for an excuse/opportunity to visit Oakland for some time, there to visit a female of distinctly Vancean charm. The thought of combining that mission with a visit to Jack Vance was irresistible.
A few months later I flew, not to the Bay, but to Los Angeles. I'd decided to make the trip even more Vancean by going wandering with my uncle Bobby. A former industrial chemist, Bob Bergeron retired early to a remote valley in the southern Sierras.
When we reached Oakland we called ahead and warned Norma Vance we were on our way. She said she was looking forward to our visit. It would provide a distraction for Jack. She made me feel we were doing them a favor by coming to visit...a good sign of a skilled hostess. She instructed us to open the downstairs door and yell to announce our arrival, neither of them being too spry about descending the stairs anymore.
The trip to the Vance house involves steep, narrow streets and some of the tightest hair-pin curves I've seen since Pike's Peak. The house is built into the side of a hill. We pulled into the driveway; a pole light immediately came on. Good, I thought, they've noticed our arrival. I opened the door, and we walked right up the stairs and appeared in their living room, taking the Vances by surprise. They had in fact been unaware of our presence. "Just like that, huh?" said Jack. I deduced that I'd just had my first encounter with a motion-detector security light. Oops.
Despite our brazen entrance, Jack and Norma received us cordially. Jack described how their house had evolved from a small cabin thanks to his carpentry skills, later supplemented by those of his son, John. The house has a multi-level, multi-awinged layout. John was currently making yet another addition, a deck just off the kitchen. The hillside falls away so steeply on that side of the house that the deck provides a potential suicide leap. Yet it's overshadowed by trees tall enough to form a green canopy overhead. Sunlight filtering through the greenery sends a rich light through the tall windows surrounding the breakfast table. Sitting there, I could imagine that the house was located in a wild forest rather than a residential neighborhood. Hanging over the table is a chandelier. It had swayed in the big earthquake that had occurred only weeks before.
As we sat around that table, Jack began to test us. With verbal jabs and loaded questions he went about determining whether we measured up to his standards of taste and good sense. I fancied that I held my own in that sparring match, but later I wasn't so sure. Jack Vance is nothing if not opinionated. He had savage criticism for several artists, including some who have illustrated expensive editions of his books. I began to suspect that his good opinion of my own artwork might be due to his inability to see it clearly. He also expressed withering views on the skills of writers whose reputation is comparable to his own. And he made the unqualified statement that jazz is the finest form of music ever devised by Man. I fell far in his estimation when I failed to agree with that.
I confessed my own writing ambitions, describing an idea I was thinking of developing. Jack bluntly told me he didn't think much of it. I continue to think the concept has possibilities...but I haven't written any of the stories yet.
Jack lost little time in offering us something to drink. I don't drink much, but I accepted a glass of wine to mark the occasion of meeting one of my heroes.
Jack seemed discouraged. The near-total loss of his eyesight had worsened a native cynicism. He described how blindness affected his life and work. I could well imagine the pain of blindness to someone so visually oriented, a man whose name is synonymous with color and vivid imagery. But it was clear that Jack had suffered no other loss of his faculties. His mind and wit were unmistakably sharp. At the time he'd just completed Madouc and was about to begin Ecce and Old Earth. He was experimenting with voice-synthesis software to permit his computer to read his manuscripts back to him. Between that and touch-typing he hoped to maintain a steady output of work. I hoped that technology would indeed permit the free expression of his ideas. In my opinion few of his contemporaries still produce work as strong as Vance's recent novels.
Jack was more willing to discuss his work than I had expected. I shared my admiration for his elegant dialogue. "The world would be more interesting if people really conversed the way they do in your universes." Put to the challenge, Jack tried to extemporaneously spout a few lines in a Vancean vein. He failed to convince me. Evidently, discourse of such elegance comes more easily at the keyboard than to the tongue.
I was bemused by Jack's pragmatic attitude toward writing. Far from being a driving force, or a release for stories and fantasies that would otherwise haunt him, he claimed that to him, writing is just a job, a source of income, a craft for which he found he has a knack.
Throughout this conversation Norma bustled about the house, tossing in an occasional comment. Her interest in Jack's writing was evident. She named her favorites from among his books, among them the neglected Emphyrio, my own favorite.
At some point John Vance came home from a volleyball game. A pleasant, personable guy, he struck me as someone whose function is to cushion occasional collisions between his parents. Like Norma, he made us feel welcome. Jack Vance, it seemed to me, had the advantage of a smart, supportive, and patient family.
Jack was keen on showing the interesting features of the house. Among them was a painted portrait showing him holding a banjo, with a sailboat in the background. According to him it wasn't really a portrait; he had just served as a model for an artist friend of his. But to me, a picture of a banjo-wielding Jack Vance by a sailboat is a Jack Vance portrait, whether he thinks so or not.
Wistfully he told us of his love of sailing; lovingly he described the glassy texture of the waves.
He pointed out the tiles on the kitchen ceiling. He'd hand-painted every one. They were a source of particular pride to him. The designs were pleasant, vaguely Pennsylvania Dutch in character. I found it strangely touching that a man who has turned out such a body of literature should be so pleased with a simple handicraft.
Norma put that kitchen to good use. With a flourish of fire and a hammered iron wok she soon turned out an excellent stir-fried dinner. The dining room was paneled with dark wood and was dominated by a massive table straight from some Asgardian jarl-hall. One end of the room was occupied by a bar more elaborate and well-stocked than you'd find in some hotels. As two vagrants who were bumming meals from friends and acquaintances all up the West Coast, Bobby and I were delighted by this hospitality.
Before Jack came in, Norma tried to apologize for his irascibility. But I saw no need for that. Jack Vance was pretty much the person I had expected him to be. He was certainly challenging, but enjoyably so. I felt, perhaps pretentiously, that his stories had given me some understanding of his personality. The more time I spent with him, the better I liked him.
Bobby also had no difficulty dealing with Jack. He'd never read a word of his writing, and wasn't overawed by literary achievement. To him, Jack was just another opinionated curmudgeon. He was Jack's equal in willingness to share his opinions. They debated the merits of jazz and talked about sailing.
When Jack and Norma announced it was their bedtime, we asked permission to camp out in their driveway. They agreed, but offered me the guest room at the base of the stairs. There I spent the night with their cat, who was old, fat, and companionable. It was a night to ponder life's unexpected twists. They had brought me far from home, to sleep in the home of a man whose writing I cherished. I was still partly the dreamer who'd loved The Dying Earth sixteen years before. Enough of that boy remained so that I felt a little magic in that house.
In the morning we were offered breakfast. I prevailed on Jack to permit me to photograph him while he sat at the table, looking a little grumpy in a grey sweatsuit. Finally I handed Bobby the camera so he could photograph us together.
Bobby and I thanked the Vances for making us feel at home. We got in the car and coasted down the hill, en route to other adventures. The Vance house became again a breeding ground for gorgeous fantasies featuring piquant heroines and mordant heroes prone to sauntering down esplanades and checking into hotels staffed by odd little men with punctilious manners.
Copyright 1992-2001 by Joe Bergeron
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