In the summer of 1980, the night before I was to leave for the Clarion Writer’s Workshop in East Lansing, Michigan, I finally gave in to my mother’s longstanding request to meet my cousin Wayne’s girlfriend. As Mom had informed me on countless occasions, this woman also wanted to be a writer . . . and, as if that weren’t enough, shared my interest in fantasy and science fiction. Though I knew my cousin to be a very cool guy, and despite my twenty-one years was generally able to grant my mother a degree of good sense in most things, I had resisted for months the efforts of mother and cousin alike to arrange a meeting between us. I can’t remember now exactly what wore me down, but I do recall feeling certain that I was simply doing them both a favor, and that the evening would be, at best, a pleasant diversion on my way to becoming a professional writer, a journey that would commence in earnest the very next day. And while the weeks I spent at Clarion certainly played a part in that journey, a much more central and enduring part of it has been the woman I met for the first time that night at a Washington, D.C. restaurant, the guest of honor at this convention, Elizabeth Hand.
That night, over a bottle of wine, as Mom and Wayne were progressively relegated to their own conversation, Liz and I established the literary and musical touchstones of a friendship—and occasional collaborative partnership—that has lasted almost thirty years: Samuel R. Delany, Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance, Iggy Pop, Bowie, the Residents, and many, many more. Most of all what bound us even then was our shared ambition to become writers, whatever it took.
When I got back from Clarion, my ego had been hammered down to a more manageable size, and my critical faculties had been honed to a new sharpness thanks not only to my instructors but to the mindblowing work of a fellow student, Lucius Shepard. As Liz and I renewed our brief acquaintance, I had the opportunity to look at some of her fiction for the first time, and right away it was clear to me that I was reading something extraordinary, something of the same caliber as Lucius’s work but with its own distinctive stamp: lyrical, mysterious, deeply observed, fiercely intelligent, and rich in whatever elusive quality gives myths their resonance and vitality. It was exhilarating but also, I confess, a bit discouraging: exposure to the work of first Lucius and then Liz, even in proto-form, in the space of a few months, made me realize how far I still had to go. But on the other hand, so to speak, it also gave me something to aim for.
Liz and I talked about writing as only young writers can talk. We talked in bars over beers and bottles of wine, we talked in long letters, and in long walks. We were drunk on writing and on each other, on the futures we were imagining for ourselves and in our fictions. In moving recently, I came across one of those old letters, on the letterhead of the National Air and Space Museum, where Liz worked at the time (1985), a letter that contained a photograph of a dead monkey from the museum’s files—though what a photograph of a dead monkey was doing in the files of the National Air and Space Museum, I'll never know. It also contained what is probably the first mention anywhere of . . . Well, let me quote:
I’m toying with an idea for something long; it has characters and people’s names & a place setting and everything, even a plot, already in my head. I think I will call it Winterlong.
Later in the same paragraph, she mentions revising a short story called “Prince of Flowers”: that story would in 1988 become her first published story, in the pages of the late, lamented Twilight Zone magazine—an auspicious start to what has developed into one of the most significant careers in contemporary fantasy. But it's Winterlong I want to talk about now.
Anyone reading speculative fiction in those days will recall the excitement of discovering Winterlong when it finally appeared in 1990. For the first but by no means the last time, Liz's extraordinary ability to create a distinctive narrative voice was on full display—this ability was certainly honed by her work and interest in the theater, but it's a lot deeper than that. She's a dramatic writer; from Winterlong to the recent Generation Loss—a surprising departure in some ways, a crystallization of longstanding obsessions in others—Liz's ability to fully inhabit her often-damaged and damaging yet still deeply appealing characters has been one of the distinctive elements of her work. Place for Liz is itself a kind of character—from the decaying hothouse of Washington, D.C. to the austere and demanding beauty of Maine, the landscapes of Liz's novels are psychological as much as geographical. I touched on the third distinctive element of her work earlier—an uncanny ability to channel whatever dangerous energy it is that brings myths into being and perpetuates them in the human heart across time. That ability is on display in all her work, but perhaps most vividly in Waking the Moon and certain unforgettable scenes in the underrated Black Light, though it also infuses more science-fictional books like Glimmering.
Watching Liz fulfill so much of the promise of her early work has been a constant joy and source of pride—after all, I knew her when! But it's also encouraged me—and, I feel sure, the many other writers who look to her for inspiration. She's not only carved out a space for herself in our genre, reflected in her many awards, but she's influenced its course over the last twenty years. And continues to do so.
I think back often to that long-ago night in a D.C. bar. It was one of those rare occasions in which you meet someone and feel as if you’ve known them before somehow. Well, according to a psychic we later consulted, Liz and I have in fact been friends over many lifetimes. I’m skeptical about such things, to put it mildly, but I enjoy the idea in this case, because one lifetime of friendship with Liz just isn’t going to be enough.