Thomas M. Disch killed himself on the 4th of July. He was one of the best science-fiction writers you never heard of, penning award-winning novels and stories of fantastically dark visions so literate even die-hard genre fans sometimes don't know what to make of them.
I met Disch in the late 1980s at a writing workshop in Tampa. He was large and funny and good-hearted (even when savaging a short story of mine). He and his longtime partner Charles Naylor, a writer in his own right, shared a closeness of spirit you only find in couples with the strongest bonds.
During his stay, I interviewed Disch for my university's literary magazine. We met in the restaurant of the hotel where he was staying. My pocket tape recorder broke at the last minute so I was forced to lug a suitcase-size boombox to record our conversation. This amused Disch greatly and he kept shooting it wide-eyed glances as if to say, "You know, they make these things smaller now." Among the many things we discussed: his debut novel The Genocides, in which aliens exterminate the human race like insects, the counter-culture mindfuck of Camp Concentration and -- briefly because I was too bowled over by it to say anything other than, "Gosh, I really like this book!" -- 334, an urban dystopia many consider his masterpiece.
After about an hour, Disch gently suggested that I power down the boombox so we could just chat. Then he proceeded to essentially interview me: where I was from, what I liked to read (and write), my experience at the Clarion writing workshop where he'd taught, etc. Despite his curmudgeonly air, Disch possessed a genuine curiosity and affinity for other people I'm glad to see echoed in other online remembrances of the man.
Disch had tattoos crawling up and down both forearms. When someone asked him why such a gentle and erudite bear of a man would want them, Disch meekly replied: "Because I want to look like a bad motherfucker."
This "bad motherfucker" also wrote libretti, plays, an acclaimed text-based computer game and volumes of poetry. In the 1980s, his childrens' book, The Brave Little Toaster, became a popular Disney cartoon. Disch claims the studio hired him to generate more story ideas, and later derived The Lion King from a treatment he'd submitted ... without any compensation or credit once it became a blockbuster.
Disch started writing horror novels, but they weren't really horror. Starting with The Businessman, a black comedy of manners, Disch wrote several dark contemporary fantasies that were fun but didn't match his earlier work (and I'm sure the mislabeling confused readers, to boot). In 1998 he published The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, a witty and engaging (if overly dismissive) examination of a genre that, in Disch's eyes, rarely rises above its gutter-level pulp origins. You can read the opening chapter here.
So I spent a little time with Disch but didn't know him. I've spent and will spend endless hours in worlds he created, but you can never really know a person that way either. Watching him from afar, he sometimes seemed happiest slaying dragons and windmills. When horror writer Whitley Streiber made best-seller lists by claiming he'd been abducted by aliens, Disch gleefully ripped him a new asshole in the pages of The Nation and other publications. Disch could dish it, but could he take it? Read his cranky thoughts on the death of Algis Budrys last month, a writer who did the sin of criticizing Disch early in his career.
Naylor died in 2004 from cancer. According to reports, things went downhill for Disch from there: depression, health problems, wrecked finances and the threat of eviction from his rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan. I can't imagine how lonely and despondent he must've felt at the end.
This year three new books will appear bearing his name. I'll try to remember the younger, happier Disch when I buy them, and whenever I reach for the classic sci-fi novels and stories he left behind on my bookshelf.