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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Terry Bisson ’64

Part in an ongoing series of the folks who inhabit or have inhabited a great small college in the middle of Iowa.

Although that ginormous state school about sixty miles east of us has the well-known writers program, Grinnell has either produced or supported a number of good and even great writers of popular works. Folks on campus now probably know about Dean Bakopoulos and Alissa Nutting [1], our writers in residence [2]. Harley McIlrath ’??, our former books manager, has written stories good enough that Ralph Savarese teaches them in his nonfiction class. The Cannon not-brothers [3] have written some excellent graphic novels. The eloquent Patricia T. O’Connor ’71 has guided a number of others through the complexities of English and the creatively imponderable David Feldman ’71 [4] has broadened our knowledge and our conversations. M. Molly Backes ’02 is author of an award-winning young-adult novel. Looking further back, we have folks like Ruth Suckow ’14-ish [5] and James Norman Hall ’10. And that’s just scratching the surface.

But when I think of Grinnell authors, one of the first names that comes to mind is Terry Bisson ’64. Now, I’ve never met Bisson [6], but that’s okay, I can still write a bit about him. As the title of this series suggests, one of the goals is to introduce you to Grinnellians I think you should know about, and I think you should know about (and read) Bisson.

I actually knew Bisson’s name before I came to Grinnell. He’s a strong SF writer, and his short story Bears Discover Fire won both the Nebula and the Hugo awards [8], and I’d also read some other works by him [11].

Anyway, at some point, I was paging through Peter Coyote ’64’s autobiography, Sleeping Where I Fall, and reading a story about a trip up to the Meskwaki settlement [12]. If I remember correctly, Bisson appeared in that story. (If I don’t remember correctly, I still saw Bisson’s name somewhere else in the book.) It took me a few minutes, but I put two and two together, and asked Harley [14] if Bisson was really an alum. Harley knew the story, gave me more info, and confirmed that Bisson was an alum.

Once I learned that Bisson was a Grinnellian, I kept an eye out for his books. And, while he writes a lot of science fiction, it’s clear that writing science fiction doesn’t quite pay the bills [15]. And so I’ve seen his name on the Car Talk book (I donated my first copy to the library, but picked up another one), on a biography of Mumia Abu-Jamal, on some semi-autobiographical literary fiction, and even on some Boba Fett novels. I appreciate that he is able to write in a variety of genres, but also comes back regularly to SF.

Anything else I know about Bisson I know from his Web page, and there’s no reason for me to attempt to summarize that when you can just read it. I will say that he shares characteristics of many current Grinnellians, particularly a leftist perspective on the world.

I don’t know if you’ll ever get a chance to meet Bisson [16], but you should take the time to read some of his works. You can read his very short story They’re made out of meat and then go on to Bears Discover Fire and perhaps his Any Day Now, which gives a very different perspective on his life, and perhaps even on Grinnell in the early 1960’s.

Have fun!

Followup: J. Harley McIlrath tells me that Bisson is finishing Joe Wall’s Grinnell College in the 21st Century. I guess that means that (a) L.F. Parker Professor Sarah Purcell ’92 doesn’t need to do that work and (b) there’s a potential chance that Bisson will be back on campus. Of course, that note also reminds me how sad I am that we no longer have Harley in the bookstore.

[1] I’ll admit that although I’ve heard great things about Nutting, Tampa’s theme seems way too challenging for me and her short story collection appears to now be collectible, so I haven’t had a chance to read it either.

[2] Or something like that.

[3] Kevin Cannon ’02 and Zander Cannon ’95. No relation, but they do work together often.

[4] A likely victim of an upcoming profile, or at least on my list.

[5] It appears that she did not graduate from Grinnell, so it’s hard to assign her a class year.

[6] That’s not quite true. I passed by him and Peter Coyote ’64 as they were heading to some reunion event and I said something stupid like Mr. Bison [7], I really like your work. It appears that my so-called friend, J. Harley McIlrath, knew that they would be on campus, and even spent an hour in his office chatting with the two of them, but didn’t bother to give me a head’s up. That’s okay Harley; I still like you.

[7] Yeah, I mispronounced his name in the heat of the moment. I was really surprised to see him on campus.

[8] SF [9] people should know that that means. The rest of you can use Google.

[9] I was trained never to use SciFi, which is a pretty iffy term [10].

[10] That was intended a joke, as the correct pronunciation of SciFi is skiffy, which rhymes with iffy.

[11] Fire on the Mountain, I believe.

[12] Yes, even back in the early 1960’s, Grinnell students were interested in expanding their horizons.

[14] McIlrath, our awesome bookseller.

[15] Or probably even come close to paying the bills.

[16] Or even if I’ll have a chance to meet Bisson; Harley [12] tried to find a way to bring him back to campus with Coyote, but failed. And I haven’t been to a WorldCon or even a Boskone in something like thirty-five years.

Version 1.1 of 2016-11-10.