Letters from an Invented Writer
A Selection of Correspondence Between 'James Tiptree, Jr.' and Joanna Russ
James Tiptree, Jr. was born on a typewriter. He was the secret invention of Dr. Alice Bradley Sheldon, a behavioral psychologist who lifted “Tiptree” from a jar of marmalade and covertly wrote under the name for nearly a decade. Tiptree debuted with Birth of a Salesman in the March 1968 issue of Analog and rapidly gained a reputation for his bold, original voice and fast-paced interstellar adventures. A coruscating experimental talent, Tiptree rose to the upper echelons of SF at a time when a new generation of transgressive writers was beginning to claim the genre as serious literature, including J. G. Ballard, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Samuel R. Delany, and Joanna Russ. Tiptree’s name was recognizable to most SF enthusiasts within a couple of years, but his “real” identity remained a mystery. Until 1977, Tiptree refused to attend live events or answer personal questions, and could only be contacted through P.O. Box 315 in McLean, Virginia.
As Tiptree, Alice Sheldon exchanged lively and intimate correspondence with some of the most important writers of speculative fiction. Over time, James Tiptree, Jr. took on a life of his own, developing long-standing relationships. While as a story writer Tiptree was known for deploying short bursts of robust prose, in his letters Tiptree was effusive and gregarious, a comic performing with preternatural bravado. An ingratiating and charmingly self-deprecating correspondent, Tiptree was alternately a compassionate listener, educator, contrarian, and avid advice giver, often picturing himself as a wizened old sage and referring to himself as “Uncle Tip.” With women, he was also an audacious flirt.
That “Tiptree” was a pseudonym was initially obvious to some, but few questioned the authenticity of Tiptree’s “masculine” voice. Beyond exhibiting deep technical knowledge of military tactics, weaponry, and biological science in his stories, Tiptree revealed in his letters a conventionally masculine CV, including references to positions he had held in the government and military. Tiptree also displayed surprising compassion for women during an era when SF was still widely viewed as a “boys club.”
James Tiptree, Jr.
c/o Bradley Lodge
WISC 54121 [c. Aug./Sept. 1973]
Your letter was more appreciated than I can tell you.
But holy peanutbutter, dear writer—do you imagine that anyone with half a functional neurone can read your work and not have his fingers smoked by the bitter, multi-layered anger in it?
It smells revolutionary—no, wait, not “revolutionary.” Not the usual. It smells and smoulders like a volcano buried so long and deadly it is just beginning to wonder if it can explode. Fantastic anger. Like the writer is watching every word, saying, Cool it, cool it, don’t say it.
I don’t have a sample of your work in my duffle in this broken-down forest, if I had maybe I could show you some of the pages where the sentences feel actually bitten off.
What the hell do you think sends some readers like me so? The scent of a new just anger, the sound of someone saying the new true word. I mean, we already have Jane Austen, all the decorous ones. We even have Sylvia Plath. I personally am watching you . . . Hostile? Sweet feathered Quetzalcoatl, it has not escaped even my tiny dimming brain that you belong to the oldest and worst-squashed race on Earth. What more appropriate emotion than anger? What task more urgent than freeing & finding yourselves now and the hell with any other minor claimants?
I dig it, Joanna. I am fascinated by it intellectually and emotionally. I am an old type with no near woman to oppress or free, but I am glad to be alive while it is happening, or beginning to happen. I read and learn as much as I can, starting with de Beauvoir—yes I have read Korda—I guess I have spent most of my recent writing income on books from the feminist presses. I’m trying to evaluate my own work very critically—let me mention that later if you’re still with me.
The point I want to make here is that I don’t expect strokes or friendship for my sentiments.
You see, I had a crazy upbringing in which I got early acquainted with some of the bads in life. (Crucifixion, anyone?) And for some reason, maybe because I caught a little of it myself, I knew immediately which side I was on. The bottom side. When the jackboots kick in the door, it’s me they’re coming for. My fantasies are of escape, not of wearing the jackboots.
So, of course, like a good little Midwestern liberal (with a brain formed in the Congo) I used to sidle up to the local oppressed with my heart offered on my little outstretched hand. Dear Socialist brother, dear Black brother, dear American Indian brother (I said), this is a terrible wrong; here is Tiptree come to help you all I can.
And of course—as per historical process—the scowling Socialist-Black-Amerind-Etcetera brother promptly took one look and instantly shat all over me, as the handiest representative of the oppressor.
Now oddly enough I wasn’t alienated. Because in the intervals of beshitting me the oppressed or some of their representatives took time to teach me a little about the mechanics of time and power and political movements, which greatly edified me and struck me as perhaps the facts of sex strike others. One of the things I learned was to keep my ears open when I heard any group of people described as:
Incapable of reason
Happy when labouring unpaid
Given to artistic expression rather than thought
Excessively compassionate and vicious
Excessively loyal and treacherous
Excessively cowardly and murderous
Requiring leadership for their own good
Supremely content with their lot unless stirred up by outside agitators.
Plus, of course, an amplitude of reasons from theology, physiology and common sense why all these things should be true.
Ring any bells?
Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that as I sidle up to the scowling Female brother with eyes alight with sympathy, experience has taught me to wear my catcher’s mask and offer my little heart neatly enclosed in washable plastic. I recognise history at work. But the heart is beating all the same. I am no masochist; I merely refuse to have my enthusiasms dashed by the purely incidental behavior of the dramatis personae.
Not because I’m a sweet type, Joanna. I’m not. I’m not even unprejudiced. I do loathe most people without much regard to race, sex, creed, or national origin, but I have also deep reservoirs of bigotry on the subject of Arabs, prelates of the Roman church, and particularly for Germans and other Upper Paleolithic survivals. If you happen to fall into one of those brackets, though, don’t worry. (Not that you would.) I don’t try for consistency in my dislikes; it’s hard enough to keep up with one’s admirations.
But look—the usual guilt about writing to a working writer is getting to me. If I go on a bit, do I have your agreement that you won’t read or answer unless you actually happen to feel like it and have time?
You see, your letter sent me mumbling to myself all the way out to Mother’s hospital and back. (I’m here standing by a catastrophically aging parent with a heart attack.) It was the best thing that’s happened around here in—well, I guess it’s only two weeks but it seems years. I yearn to go on about specific points, but scout’s honor: dump this if the time is wrong, right?
Have I said enough to make clear that your hostility is not only no surprise to me but is part of what I admire? I’m the amiable one. You can do the eviscerating.
That term “abortion.” Joanna, I have always taken that to refer to a defect in the fetus, not the mother. Am I wrong? Should I associate it with the fetus-bearer?
But how, when the vast majority of spontaneous abortions are in fact due to fetal defect? And when it is notorious that maternal physiology tends to support and favor the fetus even to the cost of the mother’s health? Should I regard involuntary abortion as something a woman does, for which she is in some way blameworthy so that the term reflects on her?
(I’m not of course talking about voluntary abortion, of which I am heartily in favor; I cannot see what business men have telling women what to do with their own bodies.)
I wish I had your MLA [Modern Language Association] speech, I’m genuinely puzzled. But I will certainly stop using the term.
And of course my saying the book is an abortion does cast ACE in the role of mother, which is pretty silly to contemplate.
But I do resist calling my book a premature ejaculation—although several of the stories deserve no more—because to me an ejaculation is a non-viable half of something looking for completion. It is my hope that a couple of the stories, maybe the book as a whole, have at least a tenuous zygosity.
Will you settle for “a semi-addled blastomere”?
Next point: Dammit, where did you find a story in which there are “chicken-people who did in the Earth ambassador by having him seduced by the maid”? Jealousy twinges my old bones; I think you spent the afternoon writing letters to six people who sent you their books—there, that’s done!—and got mine mixed. There is not, I swear, a chicken, an ambassador or a maid in mine.
What there is, Joanna, is a batch of very early Tiptree-with-Meccano-set first stories, mixed with a couple from later on. (I started all at once bang in ’67, and stunned myself because everything sold. I do NOT know how to write.) That “alien giantess” one was ’68, I’d just been reading Koestler’s THIEVES IN THE NIGHT, remember—if I have the title right—the psychically scarred girl? Probably a male fantasy, although I swear I’ve met something close. Similar to people of any sex who’ve been stomped by gangs.
Anyway, I was running through a lot of stereotypes. I blush. I’ve counted up, intending to mention it to Vonda McIntyre, who occasionally educates me. Of those 15 tales, only one has a female hero, and she’s dependent on a male mutant dog. (But she is only 15 and is armless.) There’s also an aged female explorer who is now crazy (Mother), one race-track steward, two assistant girl revolutionaries and a nurse. The rest of them range from flat-out sex-objects, “kittens,” spear-carriers and off-stage noises to total absence. (Oh, I forgot the raped polyglot who learns to love.)
Joanna, when I realised this it struck me quite serious. I then looked at my other, later stuff. Not much better, Joanna. Not much better. Oh, there’s a giant arthropod mother who is forgetting intelligent speech, and a girl who tries to have sexual congress with the Earth, etc. etc. I do have one coming out in MFSF [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction] where two women are so fed up that they man- age to leave with aliens, told from the point of view of a semi-macho male who misunderstands the whole thing, maybe that’s better—or maybe it’ll just be embarrassing, like whites writing about blacks.
We all know how that works.
What to do, Joanna? This is serious, you know. It obviously can’t be solved by just changing all the hes into shes. Vonda or Quinn gave me a blast on Heinlein’s female jocks, who are just men writing in skirts.
I suspect what you’d say is, look about you. That’s the trouble, I do. The women—most of them—aren’t born yet, I think. I have just finished hours of conferences with the phalanx of women caring for Mother. Most of them strike me as aging little girls, locked in farm wives’ bodies. (Most men are the same, I hasten to say; the trouble is, I’m in my body and I can’t get the same understanding of theirs.) (No; what I really mean is I’m in my experience.)
I don’t know Golda Meir. I don’t know Indira Gandhi. I guess I don’t know any self-actualised women, although I’ve met and worked with some damn competent ones. I know they weren’t adequately recognised. And I sensed the thing Quinn or was it Vonda told me, the terrible scars in their self confidence. A man with their abilities would have had the world by the ears.
But the inner voice asks, is it my bias that makes me see them as their abilities, that is, their competence in male-type jobs? This is male-type people-seeing. And the view of an old, old male person at that. I know there’s something out there, something that will tip the landscape into a whole other dimension if it gets born—if it gets seen.
But what the hell IS IT?
Do you wonder I read your stories?
Well. This has been unconscionable.
Excuse me while I go write a story about a male grizzly bear who is trapped all alone in a space capsule headed out of the galaxy . . .
Reverently as ever,
P.S. I’m usually called Tip. Are you ever called Jo?
James Tiptree Jr.
P. O. Box 315 McLean VA.
14 Oct 76
Hello Jo dear,
It’s 4 AM, and I’m up early to try to get some (writing) thinking done . . . but all that comes is an imaginary dialog with you. I chuck- led, puzzled, laughed, sighed, over your last letter—which you have doubtless forgotten in the passing maelstrom of your mind. (I don’t mean your mind is chaotic, although it is, a bit—just that so much goes on, and also, you’re writing.)
You mention the break-up of your c.r. group, which is what caused the chuckling. You see, I visualise you and them from the outside, while you only experience it from their intimidated and furtive escape from you.
Listen, love, you’ll get a lot fewer mysterious tiptoeings-around in life if you face a couple of things:
You are egotistical. I am [as] certain that you talk too much as I am that the earth turns. I imagine that when you are consciously not “talking too much” you sit there like a smoldering basilisk with ever-larger gouts of smoke coming out of your ears until your “silence” dominates all the talk in the room . . . Or like when the ocean suddenly recedes for miles, leaving the bottom of the bay bare, and people venture forward into the strange, unaware that the odd line on the horizon is a five-mile-high wall of pent-up words rushing down on them with the speed of light. I can just see it.
And of course you intimidate people. You intimidate the hell out of people. When you’re being carefully gentle and non-intimidating I imagine it’s like being gently dandled from paw to paw by a Kodiak bear. Your natural way is to intimidate everything and everybody in the environment, simply by being in there faster and more complexly and volubly and positively and generally like a loose live wire thrashing about.
You are also crazy as a coot.
All this has nothing whatever to do with your being or not being a Lesbian, the best-balanced friend I have is one. So is the second-best- balanced, at least when last seen.
The reason you are crazy, intimidating and egotistically garrulous is because you are some kind of a genius, or part of one, or one part of the time. You are just so full of you and life. I can just see the picture, when you have that feeling you’re among friends, someone who officially “shares” with you, a woman or a Lesbian or a writer— and you feel you can be yourself, or talk honestly to the point—and out comes this incredible flood of (a), (b), B1, B2, etc, which reminds you of (parenthesis) C, which leads on to E and F, which subsumes general principle G, having the subcorollaries H-prime illustrated by example VII, and what happened to me last week suggests that maybe we should turn the whole existential point on its head, which would lead to thoughts J, K, L—and what the hell have you crawled under the rug for when I was just agreeing with you and having a nice conversation?
Honey, other people, Lesbians, women, men, aardvarks—take a long time to go from A to maybe A-and-a-half, not to mention B, and when you open the curtains and invite people to share worlds, the other person is very apt to crawl under the rug or leap out the fire- escape—because they HAVEN’T GOT any such torrential inner world to share back.
While you’re left feeling like you’ve been shouting down a well and why in christ’s name didn’t they respond, share back, even interrupt with their own views? . . . They didn’t because they couldn’t. They haven’t any.
The lonely steam-roller.
And subconsciously you’re so used to this, so used to being too fast and too much and seeing more and so forth, that you really don’t take seriously any humble daisies offered to you. Other people have been stupid and wrong for too long.
Your doom is partial comradeship; any group will offer you companionship on only a portion of your perimeter, or heart. And you are going to have to learn to think with your mouth shut in those perilous moments when lesser mortals sidle up with a flower.
Further, you have to recognise that you are not, never, going to be “among your peers,” part of a real “sacred band.” You have to find your peers in this or that facet—as you really do—making a network of part-sharings serve the lonely need for a group of true fellows. It’s the fate of the over-intellectualised even on the barricades. In action you’re a Lenin, but your fate may be more like Trotsky’s.
Now that is all I know about that.
But I should add that crazy egotistical rampantly talkative Joanna is also perfectly sane, kindly, just, luminously compassionate, and I would have no hesitation in exposing my deepest soul-quandaries to you. Please emphasize this paragraph—I was so amused—being, you know, older and having seen geniuses trying to make out in a world of trained poodles—that I went on and on. I know the bull-dozer aspect for what it is, and I don’t for a minute confuse it with the core of you. I ache for you, Jo.
. . . The only real danger of your position is, like I said, that having had to learn to dismiss so much stupidity you get into the automatic habit of rejection.
Which brings up Ursula . . . I do think you reject too much there. You worry her work like a frantic puppy, and some of the pieces flying off the bones are real pieces. Of marrow, if we may carry this metaphor a bit unhappily longer. She’s writing mostly about good and evil and death, you know. Motives which are as yet peripheral in your own writings, your good and evil are incidental to the life, life, life in your stuff. She’s fundamentally an abstract thinker dressed in the characters of fiction—witness OMELAS. And then she had this biological idea—LEFT HAND. She has a few genuine images, dragons and ice-fields and forests and mad kings in drafty scrubby keeps. But her most personal, odd, writerly thing was LATHE OF HEAVEN, where her characters started to run themselves. Truly, Doctor Haber in that is a real, real villain. And the strange upwelling of quietist hope showed up, the thing she tried to do more with in ATLANTIS. In LATHE it’s a rather absurd but lovable salvation-through-aliens, and sea-images.
It is perfectly OK for a writer to be preoccupied with the neutral themes of mortality and virtues—only thing is, it makes for pallid writing unless one is an ecstatic . . . I kind of love her, as a baby philosophe more than fictioneer. [. . .]
Now sweetie go out and intimidate the world, suffer & study & convulse and talk, talk, talk, cook your week’s stew, may the sun shine in your weighted curtains—above all may the writing go well. And may the world offer you some much-needed security.
James Tiptree Jr.
P. O. Box 315 McLean VA.
4 Dec 76
To say that this is a hard letter to write would be the understatement of some time.
How will you react when I tell you that the person you have been corresponding with as Traptroop is really Raccoona Sheldon, aka Alli Sheldon, aka Dr. Alice B. Sheldon—the doctorate being merely in a behavioural science, not the kind that does anybody any good?
The thing is, the last thing poor Mother did was blow Tiptree out of the water, I had no idea her obituaries would be splashed around. So Jeff Smith wrote me that Harlan had latched on to one, or something, giving me as sole survivor, and was busy telling the fans. So Jeff looked it up for himself and wrote me the question direct.
I don’t lie, except for the signature—which has grown, over the years, into just another nickname—so I had to tell him yes. (That was good, actually, because I had always promised him he would be the first to know. I left a letter telling the truth in Bob Mill’s safe, to be opened if Tiptree i.e., me, died; but I’m morally sure he hasn’t opened it.)
The letter says that James Tiptree Jr. was born in late 1967 in the Import Food section of Giant, when I was looking for a name that editors would forget rejecting. It never occurred to me that everything would sell. So then everything just snowballed from there. I love the sf world, and I couldn’t resist Jeff Smith’s request for an interview—figured I could skip over the bio details quickly without lying, because my curriculum vitae does sound male—and start waving Hello to all the people I’ve loved and admired for so long.
But then the epistolary friendships grew—especially with women; if you noticed Raccoona you understand I am deeply committed to women, and I thought in my innocence that this prank could help. (There are anthologists who have sharp inquiries from Tiptree as to why no women contributors.) But the friendships got real. But I never wrote calculated stuff or lies, what I’ve written you—or anyone—is true, true true. All of it.
So now it is time for me to stop being a brand of marmalade and painfully write those of you who have befriended Tiptree what the facts really are: A 61-yr-old retired woman—past adventures, I guess, life said to be “exciting” and “glamorous,” but it just seemed like a lot of work at the time—6 ft 8 1/2, wt. 135, hair brownish going grey- streak, incurable open childish stare, lumpy writer’s face, as I said, once said to be good-looking but really only animated; mostly wears jeans and cords, and worried sick that my much more aged husband of 30 years is going blind.
Jo, can you take it? God, the number of times I’ve wanted to cry out, dear Sister, how well I know, how well I know what you mean. But I am different, by reason of age and time of upbringing, from the feminists today. Maybe more pessimistic, more aware of the male power structure in which I’ve struggled for long years. (With their Queen Bees.)
Have I done anything evil? It didn’t feel evil, it was just a prank that dreamed its way into reality. I think you were beginning to “see through,” too.
Can I ask you to hold this “secret” a while longer, at least until Ballantine’s stop sitting on that damn novel and decide to publish? I don’t think they want an ersatz Tiptree . . . I had planned to establish Raccoona better and then kind of slide over, but with my low production and this damn novel I’ve only been able to give her minor stories. Funny though; editors screaming for Tiptree stuff return Raccoona with beer-can stains on the pages—not really that bad but almost.
(If you take this in the true spirit it happened in, there are quite a few laughs to share.)
The funny thing is, Tiptree has taken on a kind of weird reality; I’m beginning to believe something was awaiting incarnation in the gourmet food section. Tiptree for instance insisted [on] “Tip,” would not be called “Jim.” And he has shown himself a spiritual uncle to quite a few depressed people, mostly fellow pros. Alli Sheldon almost had to give up teaching for the same reason—all the outsiders, green monkeys, tearful young girls spotted me at once and made me into a kind of crying-shoulder or hot-line for troubles. I can’t resist. I know too well how things hurt.
For your information, in addition to Jeff Smith, I wrote Ursula at once because of our long friendship, and then Quinn and Vonda because of ditto. Since we met later, I waited two nights to write you; it takes a sleepless night to write this. So you are the only ones who know, pace Harlan.
How I admire you who have made it openly as women.
I think I would have if I’d thought it through, but I was finishing my PhD orals at the time I wrote my first 4, and I wasn’t thinking anything through except the evidence for and against rat learning— I’m a behavioural or “rat” psychologist. So I just tagged on the first male name that came handy and let it go. And then was stuck. You see, I am extremely shy and recessive.
I guess that’s all the brute facts. If I should have put in more, let me know, if you’re still speaking to your friend
P.S. [O]ne thing I noticed, Tip was going to write you about. Have you noticed that we have always discussed writers not as technicians or the “art of writing”—but as their ethical, moral, political messages? Fascinating. Of course maybe you didn’t want to discuss writerly points with me because neither Tip nor I really know how to write.
P.S.S. Another point; all of Tiptree is me; Ting (my husband) is a non-reader, hasn’t a clue what I really do. An old friend, really; at 61 and 75 that becomes more important than gender.
Oh, Joanna, will I have any friends left?