Remembering Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe passed away last night, April 14, 2019. He was one of the world’s greatest writers, one of my literary heroes and inspiration, and he was my friend. 

Many people have written about his novels and stories, and more will continue to speak about Gene’s incredible talent, his sharp intellect and wit, his brilliant imagination and unforgettable characters. It’s all true and so much more. Gene’s writing bridged literary and genre worlds in a way unlike any other writer. His books and stories will stand the test of time.

When the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame decided to honor a writer for our first lifetime achievement award, the Fuller Award, I had no doubt that it should be Gene Wolfe. Planning that event in 2012 was one of my greatest joys, assembling writers and editors, friends and family, who loved him under one roof. We gathered together in a gilded setting full of mechanical delights (including a giant indoor carousel!) to celebrate the man and his stories. It was a magical evening to honor a remarkable man.

Neil Gaiman presenting Gene Wolfe with the Fuller Award. (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

It’s not often that our heroes become our friends, and over the next several years Gene and I had many treasured breakfast and dinner conversations over which we discussed life and literature, parenting and writing. If out-of-town friends were visiting, he always encouraged me to bring them along. It was a joy introducing them to Gene, he was a kind and generous conversationalist, wickedly smart and inspiring. Every conversation was a gift.

Two years ago, I brought the kids to meet Gene. They loved him immediately of course; and Lana, my youngest—the budding storyteller—was especially entranced by his stories. Gene was a master storyteller in life as well as on the page. He transported us back in time to his childhood and his father’s diner in Texas, his college days and the alligator, knife-throwing adventures and pocket knife collecting, his beloved canine companions, and so many other stories over lunch. He ended by insisting upon ice cream for dessert and reassuring my youngest that vanilla was absolutely a valid choice when her siblings teased her. Then he proceeded to tell them all about Madagascar vanilla, which evolved into a conversation about the history and animals of Madagascar.

That’s how conversations with Gene went, hopscotching through time and space, meandering through obscure facts and wonder-filled anecdotes from his incredible memory and experiences. Liam and Gene bonded over cars and rollercoasters. Maya loved him for the way he talked about animals and loved his dog, Miriam. Lana told me afterwards that Gene had a way of being cheeky and serious at the same time. She was absolutely right. Gene had a mischievous grin and the kindest, wisest of eyes.

Gene and I stood in his yard as the kids ran around chasing the dog before our drive back home to Chicago, and I gave him a hug. We talked about how kids need green spaces and he reminded me that they were always welcome to come back and run around. He picked out books for each of them and signed them; and they carried them home with a kind of reverence. They talked about how he was the first “real writer” they had ever met (other than Mom, who didn’t count), and how cool it was that he had written so many books and was still such a nice person. I was happy to share them with Gene, and to share Gene with them. I love when people I love get to connect. That day is another of my most treasured memories.

Gene once told me that one of the purest, happiest moments of his life was driving along the road when he came upon a whole flock of goldfinches in the road. As he approached them in the car, they all flew up. “It was like a gold shower coming up to heaven,” he told me, and went on to emphasize how powerful a moment of joy it was.

Today, I looked up what a flock of goldfinches is called. It’s called a charm, a charm of goldfinches. Finding out that fact is when I started to cry with the loss of my friend, because it was perfect. Gene Wolfe was charming—he delighted and entranced with his stories, and he brought so much happiness into my life and the lives of those who read and loved his words.

Earlier this year, the last time I saw Gene, he shared a story with me about the only double rainbow he had ever seen while driving through Logan, Ohio, where his parents are buried. He had stopped to buy some flowers for their grave, and on the drive into town he saw a double rainbow. Gene explained that if you’re looking for the supernatural, that’s all you need to see to believe in the supernatural.

I cherish both these memories because they capture something that I loved about Gene. Gene Wolfe was a brilliant man with a sophisticated wit and a remarkable mind, but he also had an appreciation for wonder in the world and moments of grace—be they with friends and family, with animal companions, with nature, or with good books.

Teri Goulding pins the boutonnière on her father, Gene Wolfe, at the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame’s Evening to Honor Gene Wolfe. (Photo by Carl Hertz)

What is remembered, lives; and Gene Wolfe will live on forever in his stories and in the hearts of people who adored him. Gene, may your soul soar to join your beloved Rosemary on the wings of goldfinches.  

The Taste of Something Sweet: A Small Ritual of Gratitude

As someone whose birthday falls ten days before Valentine’s Day, there were always a lot of red and pink decorations around the stores for my mother to draw inspiration from when decorating for my birthday; and I loved the lacy decorations, the red balloons, the hearts and roses. I still do. They are pretty and passionate and powerful and provocative, and I adore them, especially vintage cards and decorations and handmade tokens of love.

St. Valentine’s Day is also my “Name Day,” the feast day of the saint whose name I share. This is a tradition celebrated by many Ukrainians, and it can be tied to the feast day or birthday of various saints or martyrs. Valya is derived from Valentine, and I always felt a special connection to the saint whose mission was enabling and celebrating love.

I write many different things: some of them are grounded in the real world while others go to mythic places, some of them grapple with the darkness, many of them celebrate beauty. No matter what I am writing, I am a poet at heart and a Romantic. My writing tends to be sensual and descriptive, emotional and wonder-filled. I very much think in scenes and symbols.

Symbols are powerful because they give shape to ideas and emotions. They help us to imagine the possibilities, to manifest what we need by allowing us to visualize with intention. That is so much of what “magic” is—visualizing with intention. And as far as intention, we could definitely use more love in this world.

Viktor E. Frankl, whom I’ve written about before, wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning:

For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.

I know people dislike or have a love-hate relationship with this holiday. I understand that it’s complicated and muddied by the messages of the media, by toxic relationships we have lived through, by our personal struggles, and by systems put in place that have done irrevocable harm. There’s a lot there, and it’s important, and we certainly do not need to be told on this day, or any day, what love is or should be or how it should be celebrated.

I do think we all need love, however, and I choose to honor this day in that spirit, to see it as a day that remembers and celebrates the kind of love and optimism that Mr. Rogers talked about. For me, the way that he walked through this world with love and kindness embodies the heart of Valentine’s Day:

Deep within us—no matter who we are—there lives a feeling of wanting to be lovable, of wanting to be the kind of person that others like to be with. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.  

From The World According To Mister Rogers

and

Love is like infinity: You can’t have more or less infinity, and you can’t compare two things to see if they’re ‘equally infinite.’ Infinity just is, and that’s the way I think love is, too.

FromThe World According To Mister Rogers

Some years this holiday has been happy or sad depending on what was going on in my life and in the world. There have been holidays hectic with kid-related activities, or deadlines and responsibilities that ate up all the time, or emotional heartaches and losses that left little room for optimism.

However, there is one thing I have always tried to do on Valentine’s Day, ever since my parents gave me a small heart-shaped box of chocolates when I was a girl. That Valentine’s Day so long ago, it was the only gift a lonely, disappointed, romantic girl received; and after I got over the feeling of being sad, I took the time to eat one of the chocolates, and it tasted like love.

Ever since then, this is my small, private ritual. On Valentine’s Day, I take a few minutes to savor the taste of something sweet on my tongue (preferably a piece of nice chocolate, but sometimes it’s been a sugar cube or a spoon of honey), and as it melts, I close my eyes and remember the feeling of love: of being loved, of loving wholeheartedly. Because love is a gift, and I am so very grateful. Thank you.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

(If you’d like to read more about the history, lore, recipes, and rituals associated with Valentine’s Day, I encourage you to check out this three-part article written by my friend, Katelan Foisy. Click here for more!)

Valentine by Katelan Foisy. You can buy them digitally on her website: https://www.katelanfoisy.com/market

Our New Book Announcement is Forking Good!

After several people we know and love told us that we really should be watching NBC’s The Good Place, Stephen and I finally made time for it. We loved it and rewatched it with the kids in time for Season 3 to begin.

For those of you who are not yet familiar, the show begins with Eleanor Shellstrop, who wakes up dead one day, welcomed into “the Good Place” as a reward for living such a good life. She is given her dream home, a heavenly neighborhood, and a soulmate. The only problem is that Eleanor realizes there has been a terrible mistake. She is the wrong Eleanor Shellstrop. They think she was a noble, self-sacrificing activist. The truth is, she lived a selfish, morally questionable life.

Realizing that she does not deserve to be in the Good Place, Eleanor convinces her soulmate, Chidi Anagonye, a moral philosopher, to help her learn how to become a good person and hopefully earn her spot in the Good Place…so that she does not have to suffer an eternity of torture in the Bad Place. The show follows Eleanor and her new squad of dead friends as they try to navigate the experience of afterlife living in the Good Place.

The cast of ‘‘The Good Place,’’ from left: Manny Jacinto, Jameela Jamil, Ted Danson, D’Arcy Carden, William Jackson Harper and Kristen Bell. Jeff Minton for The New York Times
The cast of ‘‘The Good Place,’’ from left: Manny Jacinto, Jameela Jamil, Ted Danson, D’Arcy Carden, William Jackson Harper and Kristen Bell. Jeff Minton for The New York Times

The show has a big heart and a smart (and not mean-spirited!) sense of humor that is often peppered with puns, and not just clever puns…but clever food puns.

Those of you who know me, know that I love food—preparing it, sharing it, and savoring it. In many ways, food IS my philosophy. (Another blog post on that soon.)

Those of you who know Stephen, know that the part of his brain that makes puns (just like the part of his brain that makes up song lyrics à la “Weird Al” Yankovic in perfect melody to match almost any situation) never stops working. Never. Puns are as central to his worldview as food is to mine.

One morning after watching a particularly funny The Good Place episode, Stephen and I were driving to work, and Stephen was making puns (as he does) inspired by the show. I groaned but joined in, and we tossed around several philosophy-pun-inspired recipe titles for food that fans of The Good Place would probably appreciate..

The light turned red, and we looked at each other and knew we had to pitch it to Quirk Books, our Geek Parenting publisher, because if a fan cookbook inspired by the show didn’t already exist, we needed to write it. We spent the weekend brainstorming, pitched it, and Forking Good was born.

This appeared in today’s Publisher’s Lunch:

The Good Place creator Michael Schur does a brilliant job of creating a vivid world and lovable, flawed characters. We intend for our cookbook to be a love letter to the show—to food, to puns, and to philosophy.

The show loves its characters, and so we grow to care about them too. Through three seasons, we cheer them on to become better, and perhaps along the way, it get us thinking about how we can also become better people too.

In a really wonderful New York Times story from last October, Schur is quoted saying, “We’ll keep trying as long as we can. We’ll keep trying. No one is perfect. No one will ever win the race to be the best person. It’s impossible. But, especially since starting this show, I just think everyone should try harder. Including me.”

Schur cites writer David Foster Wallace as a personal inspiration in several podcasts and interviews. he frequently references the following quote from a 1993 interview with Wallace. After reading it, I’ve printed it out and keep it posted nearby my writing space:

Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

We are so excited to bring you Forking Good with Quirk as our wonderful publisher (Just in time for Season 4!), and the whimsical art of Dingding Hu is going to be such a fun complement for our writing and recipes! We hope that you’ll watch the show, enjoy the book, make and share some recipes, and celebrate what’s human and magical in our world. Because no one knows what actually comes next; but right here and now, we have each other, and we can make art, we can make delicious food, we can make communities of people we love, we can make memories to cherish, and that’s what we want in our Good Place.