Anne McCaffrey meant a whole lot to a whole lot of people. Her books influenced several generations of readers, and especially female readers. She was a woman writing under a woman’s name, she wrote books and stories about strong females having adventures, and she believed strongly in paying it forward.
Teenaged me read the Dragonflight books–the Harper Hall books hadn’t appeared yet–and reread them and re-reread them. I wanted to be a dragonrider when I grew up.
I was a writer then. Always was actually. The thought of being an author–being published, having other people read what I wrote–was not even in it. I knew I wasn’t good enough. I kept my stories to myself, because who but me would want to read them?
I graduated from college. I went to graduate school in England, at Cambridge University. And there I met another writer who shared her writings with me, and I shared mine, and she had friends in the Science Fiction Society, who read them as well. And they said, “This stuff is good. You should try to get it published.” Which had never even occurred to me as a possibility.
Then they invited me to a gathering of the Society, at which a real, genuine, honest-to-John-Campbell published writer was going to speak. That writer was Anne McCaffrey.
I had to go. I had never met a published author before, let alone one whose books I loved.
To my shy, still somewhat countrified self, the speaker that night was larger than life: a strong-voiced, square-jawed woman with a shock of white hair and a personality that won me over completely. She was there to talk about writing, but she started to talk about how she had actually met Lessa, and the incarnation of her signature heroine in this world was a jockey. Because that of course was what Lessa would be, since dragons are, essentially, horses–and Lessa would want the fast and the dramatic and the dangerous kind.
Then she talked about the farm she had recently bought in Ireland, and the horses–total horsegirl talk, until she pulled herself back with, “Oh, I’d better stop or I’ll be here all night–and you came to hear me talk about my books!” Which she did–including the story of how John W. Campbell, Jr. helped her develop the core idea for her dragons, and published the first dragon story, “Weyr Search,” in Analog, that bastion of nuts-and-bolts science fiction.
And she talked about her agent, Virginia. I remembered that; I remembered just about every word.
I graduated from Cambridge and went home to the United States, to a PhD program. I was still writing. I was starting to submit, and collecting rejections. Finally I decided to take a break from submitting to publishers and try agents instead.
Back then, agents weren’t gatekeepers to the extent they are now. It was nice to have one, but you could still get in over the transom as it was called, through the slush pile. Publishers still read slush then; they hadn’t yet handed it over to agents, though some were starting to declare that they would not read unagented mss.
At any rate, I tried several publishers, then opted to try agents. The first one I tried–how could I not?–was Annie’s agent, Virginia Kidd.
This was the age of snailmail. No email yet. But within days I had an answer, not from Virginia but from her young associate, who was actively seeking clients, and who asked to see what I had. When she saw it, she took me on–right around Thanksgiving, in fact. And two years later, at Christmas, she agented my first sale.
A few years after that, I met Annie at a convention and introduced myself–still shy, but determined to thank her for, quite indirectly and inadvertently, jump-starting my career. She was gracious; she was happy to hear it. Then we talked horses, because, you know, horsegirls. And she told me that her dragons were based on the Lipizzaner stallions, and her riders on the riders of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. The bond between these horses and their riders is so strong, and so deep, that she had to recreate it in her stories.
I didn’t realize at that point that I wasn’t too many years away from finding it out for myself. Yes, Lipizzans are dragons, the mares are queens, and they do Impress. And riding them can be like flying.
I hadn’t seen Annie for quite a few years when, this past week, I heard that she was gone. I knew she’d had health problems; she was writer-on-wheels at conventions for at least a decade. But she was indomitable. We weren’t surprised by the news, all things considered, but it was still a shock. There’s a large, dragon-shaped hole in the firmament these nights.
Goodbye, Annie Mac. Thank you for writing those books and giving that talk and showing me where my life needed to go. I hope that wherever you are, you have your dragons–or your dragon horses–and are young and healthy and strong again, and can ride to your heart’s content.