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More Than Dwarfs

Local writer/professor Dale Bailey weighs his role in defying the market's definitions of "science fiction" and "fantasy."

by Adrienne Martini

Call me a science fiction junkie.

Among the many magazines I read—from Martha Stewart Living to American Theatre to Harper's to Consumer Reports—is The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is a monthly newsprint half-size that is crammed full of the best short speculative fiction the market has to offer. Every month I snatch it from the mailbox and devour it like a Weight Watcher consumes a big slice of chocolate cake.

It was somewhat of a surprise when I was reading through the July issue, the one with the garish, stereotypical sci-fi "Lizard Men of Los Angeles" cover art, and I stumbled onto the following:

Weathermen, went the story, were apologetic. "Rain," they said during the five-day forecast. "Just rain." Statesmen expressed alarm, scientists confusion. Religious fanatics built arks. And Melissa—who once, in a year she could barely remember, had fantasized about making love in the rain—Melissa saw her life swept away in the rain. They drove north, to the mountain cabin—three rooms for her and Stuart, her husband. And all about them the unceasing rain.

Melissa sighed and studied the book she had tried to read as they drove east out of Knoxville that afternoon....

It was that last bit that stopped me. Knoxville? Who in the heck sets a science fiction story in Knoxville, a town that already borders on the surreal most of the time and really needs little help from those with a fiction bent? Then I glanced up a the header above the title "The Rain at the End of the World." Dale Bailey, UTK English instructor, West Virginia native, and current Maryvillian, would write such a story—and has an interesting one of his own to tell about the ups and downs of his own journey to the genre, which he was willing to do during his summer break over a cup of iced coffee and sodas.

Bailey's career as a short story writer started at the tender age of seven or eight when he would compose "very short alien invasion stories...sort of like pre-adolescent versions of Independence Day," he says. Who knew that such auspicious beginnings would later lead to a Nebula nomination, which is like the Academy Award for SF writers, almost two dozen stories in the hands of rabid readers like myself, as well as a Ph.D. in English, based on a dissertation about haunted houses? Certainly not Bailey, whose explorations of the genre led him to Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop in Michigan, a writers group whose tough critiques are legend among writers in the field.

"It was awful," says Bailey, who looks like the good-natured sandy brown haired guy who lived next door to you. "I went in very confident and I was broken. It was like basic training or something.

"Harlan Ellison [who was supposed to be an instructor] could not come but what he did was call and he had us write a story and dialogue overnight. Then he called on speaker phone and reviewed the story.

"It was the most brutal thing I'd ever seen. He chose a story and he did a three-hour phone call in which he went through the story as an example of how not to do everything. That wasn't even funny. It was unpleasant to be witnessing. I mean the writer was sobbing."

But these brutal review sessions did lead Bailey to his first fiction sale to Kristine Kathryn Rusch, then editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, who was also an instructor at Clarion. One day Rusch asked Bailey to stop by her campus office for a critique of a story.

"When I got to her apartment," he relates, "she looks at the story and she hands it to Dean [Wesley Smith, Rusch's husband and magazine editor] and Dean shakes his head and says 'You know, Dale, this will just never do.' They burst out laughing and she says 'Actually, I want to buy this story.' He was just giving me a hard time, that was like their special little find. Kris was very instrumental—she bought all my stories for a long time when nobody else was buying. She got me an agent, she did the whole bit."

Well, if the truth be told, Rusch couldn't have done as much as she has if Bailey weren't turning out wonderful stories that folks want to read. His style is reminiscent of early Ray Bradbury gently mixed with later Asimov, but it still has a distinctly '90s voice. Perhaps the best example is the story that garnered Bailey his Nebula nom, "The Resurrection Man's Legacy," which details how a small town kid came to love baseball with the help of a robot. The story straddles the heatedly-debated (at least among other speculative fiction junkies) line between fantasy and science fiction—two terms that don't accurately label half of what is being published in the genre today.

Bailey weighs in on how to describe his work: "I don't think I have a term I would prefer. It's just that fantasy these days denotes people on horses and elves and magic rings. I read Tolkien and I love Tolkien—that's where this all begins, but that's been done to death. I don't want to repeat that stuff at all.

"I think what influences my writing most of all would be West Virginia, and not even the West Virginia of my youth in the early '80s but, like two generations back, the West Virginia of the '30s and '40s, when the wars were going on between the coal companies and the unions, a much more rural setting—some Faulkneresque kind of feel. That very much influenced what I do and I think I have a very rural sensibility. I guess science fiction doesn't really work as a label for what I do, but fantasy...I really wish fantasy hadn't been so corrupted as a term. It's become a marketing category."

It is this ever-narrowing of the categories of fiction, the constant attempt by publishers to slice a small pie into ever-smaller pieces, that is currently on Bailey's mind because he is in the process of trying to sell a couple of full-length works.

"I just finished a mystery novel that I wrote with another guy named Jack Slay, Jr. who also is a graduate of UT. He's a great writer—he should write more. We wrote this together and my agent started marketing it, my agent is with the William Morris agency, and he started marketing it nationally in January," Bailey says. He sips his soda and asks, "Have you ever read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell?"

"Yes," I reply, "I loved that book."

"That book was rejected 31 times. We've sent ours out to 14 places and the letters are rolling back and they're all full of praise but...but 'It's not quite right for our list,' whatever the hell that means. That's where it winds guy goes, 'We don't publish many thrillers here, so I'm not going to buy it.' In the last paragraph he said, 'What I do know is I found the book compelling enough that I continued to read it even though I knew I wasn't going to buy it.' So I was thinking, if it's compelling enough that it forces you to read it then it works.

"Then there's a fantasy novel that I wrote, fantasy meaning no horses, no dwarfs, no magic rings—a contemporary fantasy novel that I'm trying to sell."

What makes it harder for Bailey to comfortably fit into the rigidly defined genre categories is his background in English literature and his insistence on reading outside the field.

"That's something that I consciously try to do—to keep as diverse a body of influences as I can," he says. "You know, I subscribe to Entertainment Weekly, Scientific American, National Geographic. I think what happens to a lot of people in science fiction or any other genre, mystery, that people read nothing but that. They're putting on blinders. I try to read literary fiction. I try to read classics, non-fiction—everything I can get my hands on."

Because of Bailey's depth of source material and experience with words, he says his goal is to, someday—in addition to spending time with his wife and new baby—be able to pursue writing full-time. Maybe not full-time, he adds, hedging. Only having to teach one or two classes instead of four. But why? Why stay in a field that tries to force his work into pre-conceived molds?

"I don't like writing," he says. "I like having written. You have something that could not have existed without you at the end of the process. I have a friend that works at a bumper assembly place in Kentucky—which is, you know, not to be any slur on people that...

"That make bumpers," I add.

"Make bumpers," he says, with a nod. "I would find that very, very..."

"Unsatisfying?" I suggest.

"I would be one of those people to get my hand caught in the machine because I'd be so bored I was not paying attention," Bailey continues. "Maybe it's as much about insecurity as it is anything else."

"Yeah, but I think that drives most writers whether they write fiction or non-fiction," I reply.

"I think you're right. It's like you're seeking the validity you can't get from real life. So, mousy H.P. Lovecraft—he can't get laid, nothing's going right for him but he can destroy the world every night when he writes a story. I'm sure there's an aspect of that. I was one of those mousy kids. Were you a mousy kid?"

"I was a booky kid," I say. "I'm not sure I was a mousy kid."

"I think booky is what I mean, you know one of those kids that at recess would just take a book and go sit in the bleachers of the football field instead of go play tag or whatever the other people were doing."

"Yeah, I was a really booky kid," I admit. "And then talking to other kids who weren't booky kids—you, of course, didn't speak the same language and they look at you like..."

"...You're some kind of freak," Bailey fills in. "Well, that was certainly my origin. I don't know why I started. I think I just got an urge to reproduce the effect that I had felt as a reader, to see if I can produce that charge from someone else. Of course that's the frustrating aspect of all professions, you never know if you are. You're anonymous. You're behind your piece, but at least the piece is there."

"And you assume at least one person has read it," I agree.

"It's always amazing when I meet the one person," he sums up. "'Wow, somebody in Knoxville read something by me.' You know, in 10 years of teaching no one has ever said 'I think I read a story by you.'"