A J

Algis and Edna Budrys, 1985 (Photo by William Shunn).

    Algis and Edna Budrys, 1985
    (Photo by William Shunn).

It was a nice spring day in 1950-something and I was up in my third-floor office in the house in Red Bank, New Jersey, trying to telephone my other office in New York.

I wasn’t having much luck. Every time I picked up the phone my then wife, Carol, was already on it. Finally, I gave up, turned off the typewriter and went downstairs to see if the mail had come yet. It had. I was opening it over a cup of coffee when Carol showed up, off the phone at last. “Long call,” I said. “Who were you talking to?”

“Eddie Duna,” she said. “Oh, and I invited her out for the weekend, all right?”

“Oh,” I said. “Listen, I forgot to tell you. I already invited A J. I don’t think they’ve met.”

She gave me a look, but what she said was, “Fine. We’ve got room.” We did, too — a house that was ancient, decrepit, requiring constant infusions of money to keep it standing, but with twelve or so rooms. (I work at home and I don’t like to be crowded. My current home is about the same size, though less decrepit and needing somewhat fewer infusions.)

“Maybe they’ll like each other,” she added. “Maybe they’ll get married. A J could do a lot worse. Edna’s smart and great looking, and she’s got a good job.”

“Well, so could she,” I said, sticking up for my client. “A J is turning into a hell of a writer. What’s for lunch?”

And, you know, they did like each other and, a few months later, they did get married.

Well, that’s not so strange, is it? Happens all the time. A couple introduces friends to each other and sometimes the friends get married.

Well, sure, but what’s unusual about this particular event, at least among my crowd, is that these two stayed married, through four sons and more than fifty years, until 2008, when a long illness finally carried A J off. Hey, I’m some matchmaker! When I make a match it stays made.

 
Algirdas Jonas Budrys was born in 1931 in Lithuania, but he didn’t stay there long. His father was an official in Lithuania’s diplomatic corps and while A J was still small the family was posted to Konigsberg in the German province of East Prussia. A J, who had just about got a good handle on the Lithuanian language, began to learn German. His adult memories of East Prussia — which, like the rest of Germany, had been Nazified with the accession of Adolf Hitler a few years earlier — were troublesome.

He particularly recalled Hitler himself parading right past the Budrys apartment when he was five, he told Mark Williams in an interview shortly before he died. “After the Hitlerjugend walked through, Hitler came by in an open black Mercedes with his arm propped up.” The crowds made “indescribable” sounds. Men lost control of their bowels and had to race for the bushes or writhed and rolled on the ground.

Not long after that, the Budrys family was redeployed to New York. That was a much better posting, especially for a young boy who was beginning to read American children’s stories, but then everything changed.

The Soviet Union occupied all three of the Baltic countries; the Lithuanian diplomatic service ceased to exist, and so did the salary that had kept them afloat in this new country. A J’s father had to find a new way to support his little family. For a while it was farming, but then the Nazis evicted the Soviets and occupied Lithuania, and the other countries themselves, and the American government tardily decided to underwrite people like the Budryses. It looked as though they would be here for a while, so A J began the study of his third language. At which, most critics would agree, he became quite good.

In fact, while attending college, A J began writing stories of his own in English, and even managed to sell a few. Then one day he turned up at my Fifth Avenue literary-agency office to ask if I would take on his representation.

I did. Unfortunately for A J, though — and not all that nicely for me — he came along at a time when I was getting seriously over-extended and in increasingly deep money trouble. In what may have been A J’s last public talk, at the Heinlein Centennial in 2007, the hundredth anniversary of Robert Heinlein’s birth, A J reminisced about those days. “Fred made some great sales for me,” he said. “He even sold John Campbell a story that Campbell had already rejected when I sent it to him myself. But then when Fred sent me his check for the story, it bounced.”

(I regret to say that that’s a true story, though not one I enjoy. Maybe one day I’ll write about my literary-agent days for this blog, but not right now. They were only fifty or sixty years ago and still too painful.)

I couldn’t go on like that. I took the hard decision and packed the agency in, turned all the writers loose and began working to earn the money to pay back the $30,000 I had lost. Mostly I was doing it by writing but, when Horace Gold’s health made him unable to go on editing Galaxy and If, and Bob Guinn offered me the job, I took it. And, of course, A J was one of my principal contributors.

By then A J and Edna were not only married but in the next year or so expecting their first child. They had moved out of the city and into a small apartment in Red Bank, less than half a mile from my own house. That was convenient for A J. When he finished a story for me he could whip the last page out of the typewriter, walk out his door and in ten or fifteen minutes walk it over to my house for, when necessary, an immediate read followed by my trip to the Galaxy office in New York the next morning to bring back Bob Guinn’s check for the story.

“When necessary,” as it happened, was basically always, because when they moved out of New York, they had moved away from Edna’s job. The Budryses were now living on A J’s writing earnings.

Writing money is not like salary money. Salary money comes in a check every Friday, and you can budget according to what you’ll be able to pay. Writing money comes in indigestible lumps — perhaps not much in January, even less in February, a couple hundred, maybe, in March, and then in April a whopping big check, which makes your average income per month look pretty good. But, of course, the grocer, the landlord and everybody else are on their own timetable which has nothing to do with your monthly averages, and so there are problems.

Still, A J was both prolific and good. After a while, the Budryses had risen to the status of renting a house (in Oceanport, closer to the shore) and buying a car. A J, a true son of the automobile age, was now in his element. He developed a new writing behavior that was all his own. Each night, after dinner, he would kiss Edna and the babies (by then there were two of them) good night and jump into his car, carrying a recorder and a good supply of tape.

Then he would drive around for most of the night, more or less at random, steering with one hand and holding the tape recorder with the other to dictate stories into. When he had filled enough tape to satisfy himself he would drive home, park the car, hand the tape over to Edna to be typed out and hit the sack for a good day’s sleep.

Sometimes he hadn’t quite finished the stories when he turned them in, especially when it came to putting a title on them, so we would wrangle over that before I would concede the story was accepted. Generally, that didn’t take long but there was one story — allusive, subjective, poetic — that gave us particular trouble. After we both had come up empty I asked, “All right, A J, just tell me what the story’s about.”

He said, unhappily, “I can’t. I just know it’s what I wanted to write.”

I was leafing through the manuscript. “All right,” I said at last, “Here in the first couple of pages there are some phrases that I like, One is ‘wall of crystal’ and the other is ‘eye of night.’ How about calling it ‘Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night’?”

He gave me a pop-eyed look. “What does it mean?”

I said, “I don’t know, but I promise you that if we do, no one will ever ask you that question.” And no one ever did.

I have been asked which of A J’s stories were written in this hard-driving way, and I don’t know the answer. He had begun writing novels by then and my guess is that that was the system for two of them, probably Who? and Rogue Moon, but it’s only a guess. I don’t think it was many, perhaps not any, of the pieces I published, with the possible exception of the one of his novels that I ran as a three-part serial, The Iron Thorn.

Which nearly resulted in a homicide.

You know what the first law of editing is? It is this: “Never, ever, announce a story by a particular writer until the completed manuscript is safely in your hands.”

I didn’t just violate that law. I did worse. I wanted to start a new serial in the next issue of If, which was just about to go to the printer, and I didn’t have one. What I did have was Part One of A J’s The Iron Thorn. That was just the kind of story I wanted for that spot, but every warning bell in my mind was clanging away. . . .

I ignored them. I crossed my fingers, sent Part One off to the printers and hoped for the best.

I don’t want to tell you how many deadlines we came a hairsbreadth from missing over the next two issues, but A J, though often coming through at the last moment, and I mean by that the very, very last moment, did unfailingly come through, so I didn’t have to kill him.

But I never did that again.

 
To be continued. . . .

 
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11 Comments

  1. Paul Owens says:

    Thanks for this. I’ve read Rogue Moon so many times my copy is falling apart. It’s a terrific, haunting piece of writing that hasn’t really dated at all. A classic.

  2. Bald Guy says:

    Ashamed to say I’ve never heard of Algis Budrys. But I’ll certainly keep an eye out for him.

  3. TechSlave says:

    AJ’s writing was always awesome, and I loved Who?. It was such a piece of it’s place and time, and in a good way. I enjoy the idea of driving all night, tape recorder going. Must’ve required a special set of ‘key words’ for “Wait, no, strike that entire paragraph, I hate it” and figuring out ways to deal with it when he wanted to work on a new chapter or skip a section, much less return and revise.

    Great as always to hear your memories!

  4. Neil in Chicago says:

    Michaelmas is one of the very tiny handful of stories which were really prescient about the info revolution . . .

  5. Stefan Jones says:

    Thank you for the background. I always figured him for a British ex-pat.

  6. Major Wootton says:

    Who? and Rogue Moon are wonderful books, and so thank you for this profile of an author I don’t hear about often. Who? should be filmed in black and white as a really good noirish picture, with nothing in the story, characters or setting being changed. Rogue Moon is an outstanding example of how science fiction supplies us with the fascination of the Sublime. Meaning no pretentiousness, I’m thinking of the eighteenth-century author Edmund Burke’s treatise on the beautiful and the sublime. You can go through the checklist of things that Burke says evoke the sense of the sublime, such as darkness, vastness, etc. and see them in many of the best works in the sf genre. I also believe that the evocation of the sublime is one of the reasons people read things like “Heart of Darkness.” They think they are reading it for Conrad’s take on colonialism, racism, etc. But I think that sense of the sublime has a lot to do with the story’s appeal. Budrys really nails it in Rogue Moon.

  7. Major Wootton says:

    PS Your own novel Gateway racks up Sublime points! Were you acquainted with Burke when you wrote it? Someone could write a whole paper on how the Sublime is the key to what makes that novel work!

  8. Major Wootton says:

    I should fill that out about the Sublime just a little. It’s the sense of awe or terror evoked by darkness, vastness, the impression of immense power, by great height or, even more, great depth, by suddenness, by the thought of severe pain, by loud noises, etc. Burke was writing in a pre-sf age and yet he could have been writing something intended to inspire everyone from Lovecraft to Pohl. I have a hypothesis that mainstream fiction has largely forgone such material. Many readers, however, have a recurrent attraction to the Sublime, which may show up early in life, and that tends to draw them to some sf. I wonder how many people who read modern horror, with its endless accounts of carnage, really like that stuff, but read it because it provides the sense of Sublime as evoked by the elements mentioned above aside from the pain one. SF often provides Sublime material without wallowing in gore. Broadhead’s sufferings were of the soul…

  9. Anton Sherwood says:

    Weekly salary? The only employers that ever gave me weekly paychecks were temp agencies.

  10. paul de vinny says:

    I saw photo of Algis Budrys holding an airplane in his garage and was somehow struck by it. I read here’s a “hands-on” creative person — there’s more to him than writing science fiction. I JUST GOT that impression. (Will follow it up.)

  11. Paul De Vinny says:

    Does anyone have any John W. Campbell meets Algis Budrys stories? Just doing some reserch on Campbell and was wondering if such a “collision” took place.