We quarrelled, of course. It was a marriage of two highly opinionated people, both with an abhorrence of sameness and repetition. Our political views were similar but not identical, our tastes in science fiction overlapped but had major differences. It was fertile territory for disputes. And though never intentional, our arguments meant that we were constantly re-evaluating everything, from the nature of our relationship to the nature of science fiction.
These arguments rarely had the same trigger twice, but there was one topic that came up several times. Maureen would accuse me of using her ideas in my writing without attribution. She had a point, though I did try to acknowledge her influence where possible. Yes, I am sure that her ideas did find their way into what I wrote, though I am equally sure that my ideas found their way into some of the things she wrote. That was just the nature of the beast. Whenever we talked about science fiction (or more generally about literature, drama, film) it was usually late at night or early in the morning, when neither of us was in a mood to take notes of the conversation. And the character of these conversations was such that we took no prisoners: tired, familiar, worn-out ideas were not allowed, we approached each subject afresh, whether it was a book one of us was reading, a broader theory of science fiction that one of us was starting to develop, a new production of Shakespeare we had just seen, or a TV programme we had just watched for the umpteenth time. The point was not to fit it into a well-worn slot but rather to see what new understanding, what new appreciation, might be extracted from it.
Neither of us set out to do this; it was just the way we were, and if we had tried to create such a conversation to order we would have been silenced. It was the chance nature of it that allowed the ideas to flourish. So Maureen telling me what was wrong with a book I had no intention of reading might trigger an idea about how to approach a different book I was trying to review, or vice versa. If I were to go through all the things I have written during the thirty-odd years we were together, I would not be able to say: “that came from Maureen” or “that was purely my idea.” Similarly, if I were to read through all of her writing, I would not be able to point to any specific thing that I knew came from me. To be honest, I don’t think there is such a thing as a pure idea—everything is a hybrid. Our writing is very different in style and approach and, generally, in subject matter (we wrote about the same works on remarkably few occasions, and even then we saw them in significantly different ways), and yet everything that either of us wrote emerged from the atmosphere that we shared, was a product of the commonality of our ideas. I could not talk to Maureen and not have her thinking affect what I wrote, and I am sure the same was true for her.
I say all this to demonstrate that I was familiar with and had direct experience of the influence she had. And yet …
One of the curious things that has emerged since her death is the range and character of the memories people have of her. Time and again I have seen appreciations of her, written by people whose work she edited or by those who read her work, by those who never actually knew her and by those who were close friends, by those who were influenced by things she wrote and by those who were influenced by things she said. In other words, by people who had known some part of all the things I had known during our life together. And each time, I recognise the person they are talking about. And each time, she is completely different.
I don’t know how she did this.
Let’s talk about one aspect of her career: editing. My own long-ago experience of editing tended to consist of silently correcting spelling and grammar (I am rather embarrassed to think back on this given the extent to which Maureen had to correct my own grammar; I am apparently overly fond of the comma splice, which I didn’t even notice until she pointed it out), and, if a rewrite was absolutely necessary, suggestions along the lines of: “if it were me, I would …” I was, in other words, asking for clones of my own work. Maureen wasn’t like that. Her response to every writer she dealt with was different. She seemed to have an instinctive awareness of how best to help the writer bring out what they wanted to say rather than what she wanted said.
A few years ago, for instance, she edited the memoirs of a World War II RAF pilot. There was a lot of back and forth with that manuscript, which was very poor to start with, but by the time it had reached a state where it was ready to be published the author was saying, “yes, that’s exactly what I meant to say all along.” It was an advantage, of course, that she saw each new book or essay or review as an opportunity to learn more about a new subject. There were rather too many times, for instance, when she was able to make major changes in a manuscript simply because she knew more about the subject than the putative author. There were several occasions in which a publisher reported back to Maureen that the author had expressed delight that they had managed to find an editor who knew so much about their esoteric field, though it was often simply the case that Maureen had been intrigued and had done some research. A benign example of that came when she found herself acknowledged in the foreword to The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (2000). She had been hired as a copy editor on the text, but doing some background research in preparation for the job she managed to locate two stories that Clarke had forgotten about and that would not otherwise have been included in the volume.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end. But I was struck over and over again after she died by people talking about the experience of being edited by her. It wasn’t just that her input made that particular review or book better, but that the way she dealt with it, the way she worked with the author, encouraged the author to do better, to believe themselves capable of doing better.
It is possible, I suppose, that her major impact was behind the scenes, as an editor, a vital but generally invisible role. But that is not to forget her own writing, which was marked by a unique combination of erudition and wit which is what made her work so individual and so engaging. Again, her work seemed to speak to readers almost on a one-to-one basis, so that it encouraged the reader’s own individual engagement with the subject rather than just having them sit back to admire what they were reading. Take, for instance, the last work that appeared during her lifetime, her review of Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker here at Strange Horizons. Already, I am seeing other writing on Garner, and on that novel in particular, that are citing Maureen’s review, as if it is the trigger that has made them think afresh about the book.
As I say, I don’t know how she did it. I wish I did know; I’d love to be able to emulate it. But just as the voice was so uniquely hers, so the ability to speak directly to others, to stimulate their own fresh ideas, is something nobody else seems to be able to replicate. It has been an immeasurable benefit to my own writing; I can only hope that her work will continue to have that effect on others.