In Memoriam: Janet Berliner (1939-2012)

Word came this morning (Wednesday, October 24th) from Bob Fleck, Janet’s companion of the past twenty years, that she was dead.

I had been expecting to lose her. Not just because I was aware she was on a ventilator and there didn’t seem to be much hope she would recover enough to be weaned from it. I had been expecting to lose Janet for twenty-four years, ever since I had come to know her as something more than just a colleague on panels at science fiction conventions. I was introduced to her as someone on death’s doorstep. She had already been hit by myasthenia gravis, the first of the major auto-immune conditions she developed over her final three decades of life. The on-set had come — somewhat literally — within a breath of killing her. In lasting to age seventy-three, she laughed her way past a series of doctors’ gloomy predictions.

So. Expected. And a shock nonetheless. Janet was my profound friend. With her passing the world is shrivelled and ugly.

We became published authors together, both selling stories to Orson Scott Card’s dragon anthology project in the early 1980s. When the book was split in two, mine went into the first volume, Dragons of Light, while hers went into Dragons of Darkness. Too bad about that shuffling. Later we couldn’t trumpet having been virgin writers together between the same set of covers. The joke had to wait until later, until other anthologies came along, and it took a slightly different form, given that both of us had by then slid into the bruised-veteran phase of our careers.

Our real introduction — not the first time we met, but the first encounter that mattered — came about in a way characteristic to us both. All I had to do was accept an invitation from my friend Lisa Swallow to show up for the November, 1988 launch of a writing critique group. For me, it was an hour’s drive from home, and near the limit of the distance I was willing to travel to try something new. For Janet, three decades of globetrotting and a series of unlikely adventures had been required to deposit her at that same spot — her new condominium along the shore of San Francisco Bay in Richmond, CA. She not only loved to try something new, she cooked up newness as a meal.

I can’t do justice to the scope of her story. My apologies for that. But in a nutshell:

Janet was born and raised in South Africa. Her parents had fled there in the years before her birth (Sept. 24, 1939) because they correctly recognized that their native Berlin, Germany was not going to be a good place for people of Jewish extraction to remain. Once when an anthology editor was putting together a science fiction anthology by African writers — meaning he was seeking works by American writers of color — he indicated he didn’t feel he could consider a story from Janet. He was convinced to do so when Janet explained that by having a story of hers in the volume, at least one of the contributors would be someone who actually was African.

Janet left her homeland as soon as she hit adulthood. She spun this in her convention and dust-jacket biographies to say she had left as a protest against apartheid. Well, it’s a fact she detested apartheid. But I know Janet. She could never have stayed regardless of political or moral considerations. She burned with the need to be where the action was. To her, South Africa was a backwater. What she wanted was London, Berlin, New York, San Francisco.

Did she always want to be a writer? Could be. Certainly she paid her dues early on as a reporter and translator, learning to string words together at a publishable level. But I think her ambition was more general than that. She wanted to be a person who shaped the culture. She wanted to do it in a big way, but she was willing to take encouragement from doing it in small ways, as long as the attempts meant she could define herself as a participant, not an observer. So she tried all sorts of things, including gambling.

No, I mean gambling. As in going into places in London where the smoke was so thick you can’t see the people on the other side of the card table because the windows have to stay closed or local law enforcement would know there was vice going on within. She eventually became so well known at casinos around the world that the staff would greet her by name when she came in.

She would say she made her living as a professional gambler. I would say she was always one step ahead of the posse, and what she was after was a killing, not a living. But she survived. It was perhaps the first of her great escapes.

In New York, she was a literary agent. She loved it, and she didn’t. She liked being part of the scene and was proud of the good deals she was able to land for a number of clients, but she willingly came along to the west coast when her husband, Michael Gluckman, got a job out here. Any agenting she did after that was occasional and specific, as when, on behalf of his widow, she belatedly tried to stir up interest in the novel written by the late comic book artist Jack Kirby.

In the early 1980s, her first novel, Rite of the Dragon, appeared from Donning and then from Leisure. Neither were the best of publishers with whom to associate, but then, Janet was always gambling. Janet wrote horror, and some of her real-life career stories were horrific. I can’t say Janet was pleased by the treatment she received, but in classic fashion, she looked to the editions as evidence she could show the public — and other editors and publishers — that she was a real writer.

Getting published became a regular thing, leading up after another novel and a clutch of short stories to the sale on proposal to the newly formed Thomas Dunne imprint at St. Martin’s Press of what became her most ambitious work, Child of the Light, a collaboration with George Guthridge. The bulk of what Janet submitted to our workshop was a series of drafts of this. Over the years it would expand beyond the fragment published by St. Martin’s and become the three-volume Madagascar Manifesto published by White Wolf, and then by Meisha Merlin. The final volume won the Stoker Award for Best Novel.

Janet and George worked on that manuscript for years. That’s after the contract was in place. There were, as they say, complications. In Janet’s case, the health issues and the dissolution of her marriage. The latter was why she was in Richmond. The condo was the place she bought with her part of the community property settlement.

So much turmoil. It would have made someone else quit. Janet looked to the benefits. One of the byproducts of needing to whip the manuscript into shape was the workshop. She would say see, isn’t this great?

It was.

The workshop was a chrysalis hatching. Janet was dedicated to honing fiction. So was I. We gathered a great bunch of colleagues and one Sunday each month until the summer of 1993, we gloried in the process. I miss those days more than I can say.

During those years, Janet began doing sessions through Writers Digest, tutoring aspiring writers. Any of them can tell you of her dedication to craft, and her willingness to put in a frightening amount of effort in spite of limited financial reward. Janet believed in the impossible. She would see a hopeless case and picture a miracle happening. Damned if she weren’t right sometimes.

You would think a horror writer would be full of gloom and pessimism and cynicism. Janet had a well of optimism and the bucket always came up full.

It was Janet who first acquainted me with the classic Jewish saying, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Which is to say, hold out hope no matter how impossible the current situation appears to be.

And she would. She would gamble on proposals that any sane person would not invest the effort in, figuring the deals had no chance. And son of a gun, some of those gambles paid off. She talked Peter Beagle into co-editing an anthology of unicorn stories, and then talked a major New York publisher into doing it in hardcover with gorgeous packaging. That was Peter S. Beagle’s Immortal Unicorn. She talked magician David Copperfield into serving as celebrity co-editor of two volumes of stories of magic and imagination. She even talked Michael Jackson and his people into getting on board with the idea of launching an imprint of kid’s books that she would edit, though before that project could move beyond the hashing out of percentages, the child molestation controversy erupted. After that everyone acknowledged no publisher wanted Michael Jackson to be the front man associated with a line of kid’s books.

I have to wonder what Janet might have done if she had been more robust. She really slowed down after the mid-1990s. She was not yet sixty years old, but in physical terms, she was doing well just to sit at a desk. By then she was in Las Vegas, having come to ground there after a sojourn in Grenada because it was a cheap place for a writer to live. The Las Vegas chapter of her life was important. The early part of it included not only the aforementioned big anthology successes as an editor, but the completion of the Madagascar Manifesto, the winning of the award, and her tenure as president of the Horror Writers Association. But the latter years? Not so good. To travel became largely out of the question. She slipped into a mode where she wasn’t shaping the culture anymore. She just tried to mentor others who still could.

Half a dozen years or so ago, she was in the hospital for months, on a ventilator for a substantial amount of that stretch. She pulled through. It was a theme with her. I half expect she’ll figure out a way to send me an email even now, extolling me to do something with that last thing we worked on together.

 

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About Dave Smeds

The latest release by Dave Smeds is the novel Piper in the Night. More about him can be found at his Book View Café page.
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5 Responses to In Memoriam: Janet Berliner (1939-2012)

  1. She sounds like a fascinating person. You were so fortunate to be her friend.

    Next year in Jerusalem. I can use that motto right now – that’s not quite how I understood the phrase.

    Thank you for writing this. Do you think Janet is looking over your shoulder, saying “Why did you mention that” and “But what about XXX?”

  2. Dave Smeds says:

    Janet would want me to bring up all sorts of stuff and say it in different ways. Our storytelling approaches were very different. That was why we ended up with such strong rapport. I could count on her to point out things I never would have noticed, and vice versa. And then we’d each articulate our positions. That was the big thing. So much feedback is just “I liked this” without explanation. I was able to say, “I like this because…” and Janet was able to say, “I like this because…” and in hearing the reasons, we would learn stuff rather than have to be defensive.

  3. Rachel Holmen says:

    Dave, what a nice piece about Janet! I admired her guts and liked her, but I didn’t know her nearly as well as you did.

  4. I have to say I thought Janet had died several years ago; learning that she had not, and now has, feels a little like losing her twice. I did not know her well, but I remember her very clearly. Thanks for sharing your love for her!

  5. Paul S. Rothstein says:

    Dave, Your tribute resonated with me, especially your paragraph capturing her tutoring aspiring writers. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I met her and Bob when she was still traveling. She served on a panel of writers judging works at a science fiction conference in Melbourne Florida. My family happened to be in the area because of a shuttle launch at Cape Kennedy. The local paper mentioned the conference, and on a lark, I convinced my wife(after a bottle of wine) to crash the conference with our two 5 year- olds. I had been writing a legal thriller and wanted to meet someone in the field that would provide trustworthy feedback. I used our kids to contrive meeting her at a reception following a presentation that she gave. She immediately engaged me on my work-in-progress, and from there began my relationship with her and Bob. They took me under their wings, and put in countless hours of editing and suggestions. I have to believe my obsession with rewrites with Driven to Kill drove them nuts, perhaps more than a little. I was one of the hopeless cases and the miracle is still waiting to happen. I am hopeful that it will.
    Janet’s desire to live and to continue to do her best regardless of the odds against her spoke to how fragile it all is, but also how hope can burrow through the thickest rock. I speak personally that her endurance lifted me during particularly despairing times. Bob’s love, fortitude and patience has been just as uplifting.
    I will miss my friend Janet and my world will include another hole.
    Paul