In 1999, not long after Janet and I got married and we moved our blended family into the top two floors of a rented 1850s Charleston single, I was browsing in the main library around the corner and picked up a newly published book called Flanders. I had some historical interest in World War I, but mostly it was just impulse.
A day or so later I was crying so hard that I could barely finish reading it.
I’m now 14 years removed from that day, but Flanders remains one of the greatest books I’ve ever read, and every person I’ve ever recommended it to has fallen in love with it as well. But back in 1999, I was just so moved by the experience that I went looking for a way to write to the author to thank her. Her name was Patricia Anthony. I was shocked when she wrote back.
Over the next few years, Pat — who lived in Dallas — became my teacher and friend. I read all her books — some of them multiple times, and eventually bought all of them in first edition. She was tremendously funny, occasionally bawdy, typically exuberant and eternally fearless. Most of our friendship was transacted via emails — they came in flurries that might last days or weeks, only to go on hiatus for months. Occasionally we talked on the phone — which was fun, even though I’m not much of a phone-talker.
We probably didn’t talk so much about books and writing as we did everything else, because there was just so damned much to talk about. Physics fascinated and animated her, and I consider her the first (and most likely, the last) truly quantum consciousness I’ve ever encountered. She was thrilled by M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (she thought Shyamalan “got it right”), loved that Patricia Arquette TV series Medium, and used her own gifts to help the most confused of the recently departed “find their way.” She made me read Lynn McTaggart’s The Field, and the release of What the Bleep Do We Know!? in 2004 practically made her giddy. I remember a particularly high-velocity phone conversation in which she told me that the movie was evidence that the culture was evolving. The call ended when I entered the Canal Street subway station and the connection dropped, but I rode beneath New York with the feeling that I was part of something grand and miraculous.
Pat had visions, some correct, some not. James Cameron bought the rights to Brother Termite, and Pat had a vision in which Cameron’s computer animation innovation for her alien characters gave the director/producer a huge success and revolutionized filmmaking. That never happened — not with Brother Termite, anyway. After the success of Avatar, Pat told me she figured out that she’d probably gotten the two confused. But that’s the way it is. There’s a future in which instead of innovating with the Na’vi, Cameron devoted his energies to Brother Termite instead. The universe is not so deterministic.
On the other hand, she was right about the second Iraq war before everyone else was. She had a dream on the eve of the invasion in 2003 that I assured her wasn’t going to be the story of the invasion, and it wasn’t. It was, however, a damned-near perfect depiction of the chaos that followed the invasion during the occupation years of 2005-06.
In retrospect, she was probably right about everything else, too. Pat was proudly “weird,” a woman who understood the afterlife and our place in the cosmos unlike anyone I’ve ever met. She could talk politics and books and movie-making and … well, just about anything. Only there was just one topic with Pat, and that was love, and she could love her way through just about anything.
Pat won awards for her science fiction but refused to stay in the box that the publishing industry built for her. I liked her first book, Cold Allies, but loved her second book Brother Termite, beyond reason (imagine an alien takeover of Earth, told through the eyes of a sympathetic alien, and that’s where it begins). The third book, Conscience of the Beagle, was a fun and well-constructed science fiction detective story — quite good, by any standard, the kind of well she could have returned to, over and over, for 20 years and 20 books and a big bank account and a legion of loving fans. But Pat just didn’t ever do the same thing twice.
The Happy Policeman was her fourth book, and that was the one she really wanted to hear my thoughts on. And at first I confessed that I just didn’t get it. This was largely the beginning of my education on the spiritual side of quantum physics and string theory. Pat wanted to imagine an alien race that based its consciousness and world view on quantum physics instead of Newtonian physics, and if you do that, you get these beings who are really alien. But once you understand that’s how they think, suddenly their actions take on a deeper sensibility. On my second reading, with that in mind, I recognized how brilliant The Happy Policeman was. If I were a smarter man, I’d have gotten it on my own.
Her fifth book, on the other hand, just didn’t connect to me. It was called Cradle of Splendor, and it was based on her time in Brazil. I had to confess politely that I just wasn’t a fan. She confessed that maybe it wasn’t her best work.
But the two books that followed were nothing short of genius. God’s Fires is the story of an alien spaceship that lands in Portugal during the Inquisition. Stunning. And then Flanders is the story of a sharpshooting American who leaves Harvard to serve in the trenches of Western Europe in 1918 and discovers an ability to speak to his dead friends. Neither fit into the science fiction genre, and both were lost in the machine. That a book like Flanders — as loved by critics and readers as it was — could be considered a publishing failure is all the evidence I’ll ever need to know that the industry is totally, utterly fucked.
But with Pat, it wasn’t about “sticking to her guns.” There was no defiant edge to her thinking, no bitterness at the people who cut her loose and failed to support her career. They were just doing what they do, and she loved them even as they ruined her financially. There was no bitterness. There was simply what she was going to do, and the knowledge that the world would catch up, or it wouldn’t. She lived off of Hollywood checks for movies that never got made, taught some creative writing at SMU, collaborated with some screenwriters, and enjoyed a big, sprawling family of writers and mystics who clearly adored her. She was the queen of the mass email, with a sense of humor and compassion that made you feel loved, even as you were fucking up, as I so often was.
I think even at the time, I kinda understood that I was in the virtual presence of a big old natural-born Texas bodhisattva.
Sadly, Flanders was the end of her publishing history. During much of our time together, she was working on a sprawling novel called Mercy’s Children, that was based in large part on a character that was something she’d probably remembered from a past life (BTW, if you follow that link, it’s incorrect when it says she was divorced with no children. She was divorced with grown children). It was huge and weird and historical, a stretch even by Pat’s demanding standards, and no publisher would take it. Later on, around 2007-08, she sent me a copy of the manuscript for a novel called The Sighting. I wanted to love it but didn’t, and didn’t know how to tell her that. It is a lasting regret that I didn’t do a better job of responding to that manuscript. Not that she ever mentioned my failure to respond in our later correspondence.
In her later years, she looked after her mother, dropped a huge amount of weight, fell into poverty, and lost her home. Without health insurance or the ability to even pay to get a modern computer, she didn’t take care of herself as she should have, and in 2011 she dropped entirely out of site. This had not been uncommon in our friendship — we’d probably gone six months without communicating at times — but when she didn’t reply to emails or phone calls, I went looking for clues. Eventually, I found where one of her friends had mentioned that Pat had collapsed and been hospitalized some months before. The friend gave me Pat’s number, but suggested I wait a while before calling, because she was still forgetting how to use it.
At some point in early 2012, Pat finally answered her phone for what would be our last conversation. She’d had some kind of stroke, and her words were slurred, but her intelligence was still right there, right in the moment. The problem was that it seemed to exist only in the moment. Without the ability to read, without any knowledge of where she was (the name she gave me for the nursing home in Dallas wound up not being the name of anything), it was hard for her to put things in context. But she was very aware of her cognitive impairment and what it meant.
She understood it. She simply couldn’t work her way around it.
I told her I’d work out where she was and send her some stuff — I figured pictures and art and whatnot — and promised I’d be back in touch soon. But once I realized the name she’d given me wasn’t leading anywhere and tried to call back for more details (I’d planned to have her call a caregiver into the room and hand over the cell), the phone just rang. Eventually my calls went straight to voice mail, which I knew she couldn’t use.
This past summer, I got the sense that she’d died. If you knew Pat, you know that the second thought that arrived with that realization was that she was probably concerned for all her remote friends who couldn’t contact her and came around to tell us the news in person so we’d know and not worry about her anymore.
But I couldn’t find much in the way of confirmation online. You’d figure an award-winning science fiction writer with so many friends would be noted in passing, but if that was the case, it wasn’t easily found on Google or Twitter back in August. I retrieved a fresh newspaper death notice for a woman with her first and last name and age (66) in Dallas. But then again, there are a lot of Patricia Anthonys in Dallas. I figured it was her, but I didn’t consider that official confirmation of my intuition. I’m still a newspaper guy at heart, you know.
Tonight, I got it. The science fiction world was slow to pick up on her passing, but it has, belatedly, shown her a little well-deserved love.
I never met Pat Anthony in person, but she will forever be a member of my family. The one you choose, not the one you’re born with. She was generous to me in every way, and probably never really understood how she reshaped the larval thirtysomething me into someone who was willing to take a chance for values that other people just weren’t going to understand. Ever.
Pat taught me to live by love, not fear, persuading me not by virtue of the material success her enlightened view had granted her, but by virtue of the fucking awesome human being she became. To brush against someone that great and to say later, “Well, that was nice, but I’m just going to triangulate my dreams and actions for the approval of shallow authority figures for the rest of my life,” would have been to admit that I had no cojones whatsoever. How could you not be changed by an experience like that?
The fact that I called this site Another Quantum Expression of Dan Conover? That’s entirely because of you, Pat.
Anyway, I love you, girl! Happy travels, and I’m totally looking forward to the day when we finally meet!
May the rest of you be so lucky with the friends you find along the way.
BTW, extra bonus points if you can find Pat’s picture in the banner on my Xark! blog. Here’s a clue: It’s in black-and-white.