Judi Rohrig, Gene and Rosemary Wolfe, writer C.S.E. Cooney, and Bekah Rohrig (Li’l Pirate).
Photo by Byron Rohrig
Judi Rohrig is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and an editor who has been honored with the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award (2004) for Non-Fiction (for editing Hellnotes, a weekly newsletter for writers of dark fiction). She also edited the electronic anthology Stones. Her stories have appeared in Masques V, Spells of the City, Pandora’s Closet, Furry Fantastic, Dreaming of Angels, Extremes V, and Cemetery Dance magazine. Forthcoming are stories in All-American Horror and Shadows of the New Sun. According to her website, Judi makes her home in tornado vulnerable, flood-prone, and earthquake-shaken Southern Indiana.
Tell us how you first encountered Gene’s writing?
It might come as a shock and surprise to those who have enjoyed the delicious worlds and deft prose and poetry of Gene Wolfe all these many years, but every day opens the possibilities to new readers. I know because in 2002, I became one of those newbies. That year I was the publicity coordinator for the World Horror Convention in Chicago, and Gene was one of the Guests of Honor. Honestly, I knew nothing about his writing except that one of my good friends spoke highly of his books (and said friend owned and had read every single one of them multiple times).
Fair enough. I dove right in, pinged Mr. Gene Wolfe via email, introduced myself and function, and requested an interview. He said he’d already done enough interviews – people were tired of hearing about him. Please understand he was never curt or rude, just, well, challenging. So I backed up and punted. That’s what I told him. I said I needed to publicize his attendance at the convention, but I wanted to engage him in something fun. So he insisted on interviewing me, and I wound up writing about the back-and-forth.
By the time the convention was over, we (including his lovely wife, Rosemary, and my husband and daughters) were friends. And I had learned to think in a whole different way. He’s not just deep in print, let me tell you.
Tell us about your favourite story or novel by Gene and what it means to you.
This is a hard question to answer. It’s akin to asking what’s my favorite kind of cheesecake. But I’ll give it a go.
I don’t think there is a better short story writer, so I love his collections. Starwater Strains especially. But whenever I come across one of Gene’s short stories in a magazine or anthology, I have to read it first. He absolutely nails just how long the story should be. Heck, the crafty devil managed to include a brief tale in the introduction he wrote for Brian A. Hopkins’ new collection, Phoenix. I don’t know anybody else who could pull that off.
My favorite short story is “Frost Free,” which Gene wrote for the new anthology. If I would read another short story in the next few hours, I’m certain it would be a contender for my favorite. But, for now, it’s “Frost Free.”
As for novels, Pirate Freedom is hands down my favorite and not because he dedicated it in part to my younger daughter, Bekah (known to Gene as the Li’l Pirate). When I finished that book, I turned around and read it all over again. Captain/Father Chris truly snagged my heart and managed to drag me into the fray all over again. Gene does that, though, all too easily. Most often it’s because Wolfe worlds involve numerous dimensions and layers. Reading any of his books or short stories just once can’t possibly provide any reader with the full force and impact. His tales are like those Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls. There’s more and more and more and . . .
Home Fires is like that, too: It’s Science Fiction! It’s a mystery! It’s a thriller! I totally enjoyed peeling away those layers. The first time I heard Neil Gaiman talk about Gene’s writing, he said he’d read Peace and then turned around and read it again because he didn’t know until the end that there was so very much in that story. I’d already read Home Fires three times when the editor called me about the anthology. That was the world I wanted to explore more fully, so I reread it twice more.
But Peace does hold a special place in my heart.
That brings us to Gene’s essays. Castle of Days includes some of the finest essays on writing I’ve found. See? There’s so much to consider, and I haven’t even hit on Letters Home. (Be patient.)
What is it about Gene and his work that has inspired you and so many other writers and readers?
He spins one heck of story. I don’t know anybody else who writes like he does. His words grab me by my collar, whoosh me into whatever world he’s created, and fold me into his story immediately. There’s no warm-up. No hesitation. Just here it is and here’s what’s happening. I haven’t figured out how he does it. Maybe I really don’t want to know, and I’m a writer who reads the end to mysteries, not to kill the suspense, but because I want to see how the writer gets to that end. I don’t do that with Gene’s works though. I plunk my keister down with my dictionary and open all my senses. I think it’s a lot like savoring twenty-year-old fine Kentucky bourbon. I sip; I consider; I marvel. And in the end, I feel mighty fine!
But there is more to Gene Wolfe than his writings. I have the extreme privilege of knowing Gene as a person. Our emails and letters and conversations generally revolve around our families and things in the world other than writing. Lots of silly things. Silly songs. Poems. Remembering things from our pasts. And yet having swept away his writings, I have to say his Letters Home, a collection of his correspondence with his family when he served in the Korean War, is the one book I treasure most. Li’l Pirate is now older and married to a Marine. Gene’s letters have helped me to understand a bit of what my son-in-law must be feeling being so far from his family. I try to read something from it right before I go to bed at night.
Your story in Shadows, “Tunes from Limbo, But I Digress” is related to Gene’s novel Home Fires. What was it about this recent book that inspired you? Can you tell us how you came up with the story?
My tribute in the book touches a bit on explaining this. I came up with that title a long time ago. Gene told me then I better hurry up and write a story to go with it or he was going to steal it. But no matter what I wrote, no story of mine seemed to be the right fit. Then when the editor called and said Gene requested a story from me for the book, lots of things suddenly fell together: Home Fires; a comment Gene made about pencils and my obsession with Palomino Blackwing 602s; his many stories where he wrestles with memory; Mark Roth’s TED talk about suspended animation. And once I got out of the way of the narrator, lots of other things popped up.
Storytelling is always a surprise. It’s part of the fun of writing. But besides wanting to tromp around in a Gene Wolfe world, I also wanted to write a story for Gene and Rosemary, so there are things in the story that only Gene will understand. Names he will recognize. Lines from poems we shared. I knew from the beginning the story would begin with “Dear—.” I mean how many of Gene’s stories begin just like that? And I said I was a junkie for his letters. “Tunes . . .” is my letter home. Gene Wolfe forced me onto a spaceship bound for who knew where. It was fun finding out.
There has never been a story that I have worked on harder or have sweated over more because how do you pay homage to a man like Gene? As long as he likes the story that’s all I care about.
Home Fires is another of Gene’s tricksy books. I was astonished that you felt safe to write a related story. Were you at all worried that you hadn’t “got” the story beneath *Home Fires*’s surface (because I would be terrified)? But your story oozes confidence as it builds on the novel’s foundations. I am curious to know how you felt about it?
Thanks for those kind words. They truly mean a lot. Yes, the pressure at first was daunting, but that spring when I first met Gene, he asked that I be one of the speakers at his tribute luncheon. At that time I had read very few of his works, but I agreed. (I mean, what an honor!) I talked about how bowled over I was with his writing. How he was like drinking champagne in a paper cup. Or was it beer in Waterford crystal? The point was I was a new reader. Brand-spanking new!
Gene Wolfe as a writer is all about being brand-spanking new. He grows as a writer with every new project. He keeps his eyes and ears open, his imagination cranked up to high. Maybe that’s the most important thing to take away from Gene Wolfe as a writer. He forgets the stuff that came before and embraces the possibilities of the future. The man is ageless, and some people need to catch up.