Friday, February 17, 2012


Excerpt from William A. Henkin Ph.D.'s Introduction to James Williams' collection, Red Sails in the Sunset:

1. One Man's History
I met James Williams in the mid-1970s, as I left one of San Francisco's booming disco-era bath-houses some time after midnight. He recognized me as the man who had shared his pursuit – though not his conquest – of a particularly inspired individual, and invited me out for a commiseratory nightcap. We ended up at the old CafĂ© du Nord, which was still a Basque restaurant in those days, and sat at the long carved bar before the rose quartz mirror that was a relic from the restaurant's speakeasy days. The bartender back then so closely resembled pictures of Gurdjieff that I once accused him, only half in jest, of actually being the old master trickster himself. He laughed instead of giving me a straight reply, but he let me drink on the house that night; and when James and I walked in he was already pouring my Pernod.

The place was quiet close to closing time as James and I became acquainted. He was considerably younger than I, about six feet tall, very lean and lithe, and moved as if he balanced on his head a precious vase of great antiquity rather than the tight sort of mop of dark auburn curls that will never grow thin and possibly never go grey. We found that we shared interests in psychology and literature, as well as in sexual exploration; in Peet's coffee, then available in only one Berkeley shop; and in baseball, about which he knew far more than I: his knowledge seemed encyclopedic as Bill James's*. He also expressed considerable interest in my early careers as a university English teacher and a literary magazine editor, and spoke with a humorous, exaggerated tolerance about the vagaries of the jobs he then held as a substitute teacher in a private high school on the Peninsula, a San Francisco tour-bus driver, and an occasional gigolo. As we parted a pleasant hour later I voiced the hope that we'd soon get together again, but James turned out to be fully as reclusive as he claimed to be. My next encounter with him was several years later, when he left a message on my answering machine one day in 1978, asking me to listen to him read a story on the radio the following day. But he left no number at which I could call him back, he was not listed with Directory Assistance, and the person who answered the phone at the radio station when I tried to find him after his reading said she had no way to reach him.

It was more than a decade before I heard from James again, when I received a typescript of the story "Straight Boy" and a note that ended, "Truth is stranger than non-fiction," reminding me of the evening we had met. A few days later he phoned, and on a stormy afternoon in the winter of 1992, while a heavy rain tattooed against the corrugated plastic roof and the dim lights made the large, thinly-warmed, fern-filled room feel like a cozy covered shelter in an outdoor garden, we met for coffee at The Patio on Castro Street.

James wanted a closer conversation about writing than we'd had before and so did I, and we chatted on all afternoon. At one point I asked how he wrote fiction and he said he didn't know. Sometimes he just sensed that a story had come to him and he sat down to write it immediately. Sometimes he was writing something else – a letter, a shopping list – and found he was writing a story, so he had to abandon whatever his first task had been in order to follow the story's thread to the end: if he didn't follow the thread right then, he said, there would be no thread to follow when he went back to look for it later. He said he never knew what a story was going to be about when he began it, he never knew where it would go except while it was going there in the writing itself, and he never knew how it would end until it actually ended, usually surprising him. He had never been able to decide to write a story and then write one. All he knew about writing – all he had ever learned, he said – was how to open himself to whatever Muse or inspiration it was that seemed to write through him.

As dinner-time approached James said he thought he should be getting home. Home where? I wondered. Home to whom, home to what? He smiled almost ruefully and shook his head. "Home," he said, and then he said good-bye. Episodically over the ensuing years I've received envelopes from him containing stories and requests for my responses to them, but until very recently I never received a reply in return when I wrote to his P.O. Box.

In 1994 or '95 James called again and asked if I would represent him. He'd had a story published in an anthology edited by the writer then known as Pat Califia, and Pat had asked him to read it at A Different Light, San Francisco's premier gaylesbitrans bookstore. He wanted to accept, but had become either agoraphobic or clandestine – it didn't matter which, he said – and just did not feel he could step that far out into the light of visibility. I agreed to appear in his place, explained his absence and my presence to the audience, and read "Daddy" for him. Our occasional correspondence resumed.

In 1998 James called to tell me Race Bannon had accepted his collection of stories for publication at Daedalus Publishing Company, and asked if I would help him select and arrange the stories. Race had published a book I wrote with Sybil Holiday, Consensual Sadomasochism: How to Talk About It and How to Do It Safely, and I both liked and respected him. Since I also had come to feel a personal interest in James's fiction, my answer was easy: yes: of course. James agreed to answer my queries about his manuscript and book, and for that purpose we have spoken now and again in the intervening years. When Race decided to move on from Daedalus, James asked me to represent his book to other publishers. Once more I consented, and brought it first to Janet Hardy, whose Greenery Press is a pre-eminent publisher of alternative sexuality publishing in America today. She agreed to consider the manuscript, and happily for everyone concerned it found an appropriate home.

Also in the intervening years I came to understand that as the nominal editor of this collection I ought to say something about the stories I was going to help select and organize. This worried me, because usually fiction speaks so well for itself and in its own language that an editor, reviewer, or other sort of commentator risks undermining its impact by saying too much, or slighting its purpose by saying too little, rather than illuminating the work's intention by saying just the right thing.

*Baseball is a game rife with statistics all fans can cite, and others that only the most diligent experts know without computers. But the preservation and knowledge of statistics has always been a hallmark of the baseball fan, and without doubt Bill James is the greatest statistician in baseball's history. He is the author of Bill James's Historical Baseball Abstract, the All-Time Baseball Sourcebook, the All-Time Major League Handbook, Bill James Presents Stats: Major League 2000, Bill James Presents Stats: Minor League 2000, Bill James Presents Stats: Major League 1999, Bill James Presents Stats: Minor League 1999, and a slew of related titles.

Also by James William from Sizzler Editions:

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