On the Passing of Vonda McIntyre

Published on April 2nd

What feels like ages ago, when I was in college, my friends and I went to a public event that was put on by Clarion West, where we got to hear the three great ladies of Pacific Northwest Science Fiction, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Vonda N. McIntyre, speak on a panel about... I don't remember what, anymore, to be honest. Probably about writing. Mostly what I remember was that all three of them were incredibly well-spoken and clever and interesting, and that Vonda had brought some little plastic desk toys that I remember Ursula spending most of the talk playing with whenever she wasn't speaking. 

As of yesterday, all three of those great ladies are gone.

I never had the chance to talk to Ursula or Octavia more than briefly in the signing line that night. I remember we were trying to work things out so that Octavia could come and speak at an event of ours, but I wasn't the person coordinating that (I was and am not nearly forward enough to be given that sort of job), and it never worked out, sadly -- my vague memory all these years later is that we needed to arrange transportation for her in order to make it happen, and, at the time, none of us had cars and things like Car2Go and Uber and whatnot hadn't been invented yet, and then the idea eventually had to be given up for one reason or another. 

Years later, though, in what I think must have been 2014, some friends from the Northwest Editors Guild invited me along to the Potlatch convention, which was happening that year at Hotel Deca in the University District. At the time there were only something like six of us who specialized in science fiction and fantasy editing, and almost all of us went to that convention together... and when we communally agreed that we weren't interested in the next session happening in the main room, we went upstairs to the hospitality suite to see what was going on there. We were standing around drinking sodas and eating pretzels, if I remember right, when A noticed that Vonda McIntyre had just come into the room. A is not a shy person, so she said she was going to go over and say how much Vonda's books meant to her, and she meant it. And the rest of us followed. 

A little personal backstory: When I was perhaps twelve or thirteen, my dad gave me all of his old sci-fi anthologies from the 60s and 70s. And while I was (and actually still am, I guess, since I've never yet done more than crack them) intimidated by the hardcover collections, the OMNI and Analog paperbacks were much more accessible, and I read them avidly. And inside the old Analog one (I think it was a 50 year anniversary collection or something like that), I found Vonda McIntyre's "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand." And I think I read that story a dozen times over the next year or two, until I reached the point where even though I haven't so much as looked at it in more than twenty years, I can still remember parts of it almost word for word. Although I've never gone back and reread that story as an adult, or even the novel based on it although I bought it at a used bookstore ages ago, I have read The Moon and the Sun by her, later, and love it immensely.

So, given all of that, I was more than a little embarrassed and intimidated to be trailing behind one of my much braver friends up to this woman whose writing was one of my early exposures to the classics of the genre. But A's boldness broke the ice, and Vonda was very pleased, it seemed, to meet a group of editors and writers in the field. Eventually we decided (I can't recall exactly how) that the hospitality suite was getting crowded, and all went down to sit at a circle of chairs in the lobby. We all agreed the next session didn't sound that interesting, either, and somehow I wound up chatting with my friends and Vonda McIntyre for what I think must have been around two hours. I don't remember much of what we talked about -- it was a free-flowing conversation that roamed freely between local hiking spots and the fact that The Moon and the Sun had recently been optioned for a movie and she had visited set, I believe, and what the process of all of that was like. 

My friends wound up going out to dinner with her that night, to Costas, I believe, and I went home -- I regret that immensely, now, but it felt like the right thing to do at the time. Not because I felt embarrassed or shy anymore -- just a few sentences in Vonda had already made all of us having a conversation feel perfectly normal, as if there was nothing at all to this except a bunch of colleagues and like-minded people having a chat. Which was what it was, except for the part where one of us had published seventeen novels and won two Hugos and and four Nebulas. I'm sorry I missed the chance to chat more with her, and hear more of her stories, and maybe work up the nerve to tell her about reading "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" for the first time on a family camping trip, and how excited I'd been to see a woman's name in that otherwise heavily-male anthology. About how deeply that story had affected me.

The movie of The Moon and the Sun was completed and announced to be released in August of 2015, but the release was cancelled very shortly before it happened, and apart from a retitling to The King's Daughter, the movie's been in some kind of weird limbo ever since. On the one hand I'm sorry, because Vonda seemed excited about it happening, but I'd always had a hard time imagining they'd do the book much justice. She was savvy enough (and familiar enough with the travails of Ursula LeGuin's various problems with adaptations) to know that, though, and it would have been nice if a movie version could have driven more readers to the book.

A few weeks ago I found out (I think via Twitter?) that Vonda had pancreatic cancer and was very ill. I signed up for CaringBridge so I could follow updates, and for the last week or so have read them with a feeling of resignation and familiarity. Even the person making the updates refused to sugarcoat things, and the progress sounded not at all unlike when my maternal grandpa was in hospice care some years ago. Today, when I got a second update in a day, I knew it would be the last one, and it was. She died peacefully, without any pain and surrounded by friends, and at quite a respectable age, as well -- we should all be so lucky. But I'm going to miss seeing her posts on Twitter, and I'm just sort of struck by the feeling that almost all the heroes of my childhood and youth are gone, now. I guess that's adulthood. It sucks.

(Why the dandelions on this page? That's explained somewhat in this entry about Janet Kagan, one of my other most formative author heroes. Thanks to her, I can't help but associate dandelions with grief and loss as well as with common, everyday happiness.)

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