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Spider Robinson didn't start out with dreams of becoming a writer of world-renowned science fiction. Not even close. Spider Robinson's early dreams and ambitions were mostly around being a folksinger. Robinson laughs now that there "was an extremely limited window for that career." And the window was closing rapidly. Around the time he got good enough to start getting regular gigs, the window closed. "There was room for one James Taylor and the position was filled, thank you."
Robinson's many and vocal fans are most likely pleased by this development. Not only did it mean that the hilarious and visionary writer would actually at some point begin to write, it also would lead to the birth of one of Robinson's best loved heroes, the recurring Jake Stonebender from Spider's Callahan series of books. Like Jake, Robinson is tall and lean to the point of stringbeany-ness. "If you saw me naked you'd see I look like a snake that swallowed a dog." This in spite of that fact that he gained a whopping 25 pounds after quitting smoking last year, a gain that has seen him pushing up over 145 pounds.
Robinson says that he and Jake, "share many characteristics in many ways. In part Jake is me as I might have turned out if I hadn't met Jeanne. And the man has gotten away with being a folksinger for the last 25 years. Do I need to say this is fantasy?"
Spider and Jeanne Robinson have been married for 25 years. The pair met on a commune in Nova Scotia in the 1970s and their obvious affection and deep regard for each other makes the quarter-century-married mark look like a walk in the park.
The couple have created three novels and a daughter together. Daughter Terri, reports Robinson, is a bit of a rebel. "I don't understand it," he jests, "she insisted she wanted a regular paycheck," and moved to New York a few years ago where she is print production coordinator for Martha Stewart Living. Robinson shakes his head in mock-dismay at this disclosure, but his pride in his only offspring is apparent.
Jeanne is a well-known choreographer and was at one time on NASA's shortlist for a space shuttle seat in order to try out her theories of zero-gravity dance. These were the same theories that led to the award-winning novels the couple collaborated on: Stardance, Starseed and Starmind.
Robinson sold the first story he ever wrote -- typed on the back of the letterhead of the construction company where he worked -- to Analog magazine. "I had been picked out of the slush pile by a man named Ben Bova." Robinson says now that all he owes Bova is "everything," but that was also the last story Robinson would be able to sell for the next year and a half.
That first story also would eventually become the opening chapter in Robinson's first Callahan book and the foundation for all of the Callahan stories to come. The teensiest seed for that story came from a movie Robinson had watched featuring "Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer. I've managed to misplace the name of the film, but in it they were exiled Russian nobility, forced to work as butler and maid for British aristocrats," not a good gig, but, "every night when the master and mistress were asleep, the two of them would gather in the cellar and put on their imperial finery, drink the master's champagne and then smash their glasses in the fireplace. And I just had in my head: Boy. What a cool thing that must be. Smash your glass in the fireplace." And, in an early form, Callahan's was born.
What Robinson couldn't have known, of course, was the furor and passion that his fictional bar and barkeep -- as well as the variously superhuman and all-too-human characters he created -- would someday command. alt.callahans has been one of the most popular groups on usenet for the past several years, something that Robinson finds both baffling and rewarding. "I don't spend time there because I don't dare. I see it as sort of a black hole into which I could easily get sucked and never emerge again," says Robinson. "I sense a drug shaped to fit my endorphin receptors."
These days, Robinson tries to balance Callahan and non-Callahan novels equally. "The Callahans are all funny stories with a serious point underneath and in between I try to write serious novels with a few funny jokes on top."
In person, Robinson is articulate, a wonderful storyteller and incredibly funny. So funny and succinct, in fact, that after spending a recent afternoon with him and Jeanne at his coastal British Columbia home, it was impossible to transcribe the interview with him in a normal way. Delightfully, the most simple question would set the writer off on a cheerful tirade -- usually accompanied by an anecdote or two. On listening and then reading over what had transpired, it seemed to me that my own voice was superfluous: Robinson's is loud and happy and carries the "interview" very well on its own steam.
Here, then, are Spider Robinson's thoughts on a number of topics: from where he got his name, to his earliest encounters with Ben Bova, his run-in with Tom Waits' lawyers, how he started writing, what he thinks about Dan Quayle, his upcoming writing projects, his thoughts on space, on writers he admires and... well, other stuff. On reading it you get a very real sense of how Robinson has managed to produce 29 books and many short stories over the course of the last 25 years: he's got a lot to say and the ability to say it well. | September 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.