Semi-Daily Dandelions

Published on October 15th

Every writer has heroes, other writers who have gone before us and whose work we draw on for inspiration and that little push whenever we feel low or wonder what the point of it all is – it’s not only great scientists who stand upon the shoulders of giants. I have a lot of giants at the top of my beanstalk, but one of the most important to me stands so very tall in my mind only in part because of the writing that she published in her lifetime. The rest of the reason I revere her memory is entirely because of her persona off the page, and the openness with which she interacted with her fans.

I found Janet Kagan’s writing as a tiny geekling through her Star Trek novel, Uhura’s Song. Shortly after reading that, I read everything else she’d ever written… and then reread both Mirabile and Uhura’s Song again and again, until my copies of both became rather tattered. I even had to buy a new copy of Uhura’s Song, because mine was just that ratty and well-loved. I’m pretty sure, looking back, that her astute and very realistic depictions of cultural difference in sci-fi were part of why I wound up majoring in anthropology, and I know they’re a large part of why I write fictional cultures the way I do. But the real influence Janet had on me didn’t come from her books.

The real influence started some years later when I discovered her website.

This was back in the old-old days of the internet, in times of colored backgrounds and, generally, pretty poor design standards across the web. Janet’s website was a sprawling mess of links to millions of things, tons of pictures and random anecdotes, and cross-connections that often didn’t hook up in any rational manner. Footer links appeared and disappeared across different pages, and it was easy to lose track of how to get back to any individual page, but this was all back in the days when idiosyncrasies like that made the exploration of a new website exciting rather than causing me to gnash my teeth and bitch about poor user experience. It was a more innocent, and immensely more colorful, age for the web. It was also an age before ads, which I suppose might be hard for those who didn’t experience those halcyon days to really believe.

Point is, I loved her website. I loved reading her paean to James H. Schmitz, an author who I’m ashamed to admit I still haven’t managed to read any of, and her stories about her many cats, and the random little detritus of daily life. I sifted through her online bookmarks, and found a number of neat things that I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. And I emailed her. I don’t remember exactly what I said anymore, which is probably a good thing because I’m sure it was pretty sophomoric and fawning, but I know I told her I wanted to be a writer. I know, because she wrote back to encourage me.

Over the next couple of years I kept in touch with Janet on and off. I sent her a poem about dandelions that I discovered in a poetry class, because she had a page on her website explaining her affinity for that humble flower, and I absorbed her kindness and her quirky humor. Her words by email, like her words in her books, sank into my subconsciousness. Mostly, I basked in the fact that this writer I respected so much, one who was also a bit odd and quirky and fangirly and also more-than-usually short just like me (though I do have a few inches on her, as she was genuinely tiny) tolerated me and encouraged me and was very, very sweet to me. Looking back, I’m particularly impressed and humbled by this because she made clear on her site and, I believe, in a few emails, that she suffered from some chronic health problems. She didn’t need to take the time to feed the dreams of one slightly odd young fan and would-be writer. But she did.

Several years later, when I had completed college, it occurred to me to look up her site again, and it was the same as ever… except for a message. Janet had died.

The site's still up, same as it always was with the addition of her husband Ricky’s message, and every couple of years I go on a little nostalgia-jaunt through some of her old pages, link-hopping and trying to remember how to get back to some of my favorite stories. Most of them I’ve totally forgotten the location of. A lot of the external links are dead, as are a few internal links (even more than were dead at the time, as Janet had a habit of removing links and leaving the text there, presumably with intentions of finding new addresses for the content in the future). But it’s nice to go back and see the old familiar place exactly as it was, like walking into a house you’ve known for many years and finding that it still looks and smells exactly the same as it did in your memory. I still think about Janet a lot. The other Janet Kagan mentioned on my Janet’s site, the one who works in TV, was until recently the script supervisor on How I Met Your Mother. And every now and then (like today) I find someone else who read Janet’s books and mentions her as a major influence.

I still quote Janet semi-unconsciously. I’m not yet papering my bathroom with rejection slips from publishers, but every now and then in my writing there’s a little obscure reference to her, or a character or relationship that I know has its roots buried back in her writing. And I always think of her when I see dandelions.

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