Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A-Z: Kathleen Massie-Ferch

I was originally going to blog about my Kindle for the letter K, but I've done so several times already and couldn't come up with a new angle. Even sharing the contents of my "To Be Read" collection didn't sound interesting, especially when there are twice as many titles as there were last time. Instead, I'm going to share with you a tribute I wrote to my writing mentor, Kathleen Massie-Ferch. She died of breast cancer in 2002, but she's still missed. This essay is taken directly from my website:

There are times when you read the subject of an e-mail message and already know what it will say -- and that it will be bad news.

Last night (July 20, 2002), I received a digest of e-mails from my BroadUniverse discussion group. Each digest lists the messages and their subject lines at the top, and the name of Kathleen Massie-Ferch, my writing mentor, caught my eye. I scrolled down to confirm what I immediately knew: she had lost her battle with breast cancer. She was only 47.

I first met Kathy in the fall of 1997, through a writing class conducted through the student union at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I'd been inspired the year before to start writing again and had actually managed to finish the first draft of a fantasy novel (Day of All Seasons), which I proudly hauled with me to class. Every Tuesday evening for four weeks, I drove up from Beloit, WI, where I worked; grabbed a quick dinner at home in Janesville; and drove another forty miles up to Madison for class. After a three-hour session, I had to drive another forty miles back again and then get ready for work the next day. It made for a long day, and before committing to something like that you'd want to be sure it would be worth it. I knew it would be, though, because the instructor's name sounded familiar. Some quick research revealed she was a published author and that I'd already read two anthologies she'd edited. Feeling reassured, off I went.

Kathy turned out to be a 40-something woman with long brown hair. I mentioned during the first class that I'd read her work, and she seemed pleased. We reviewed a lot of information in our four class sessions, everything from the difference between fantasy and science fiction to market guides for stories and other resources. Many of the things she taught us were points I'd already read about in writing books, but it seemed to make a difference being able to discuss them with a professional writer. The last class was a workshop where I and my other classmates shared chapters or stories for comment. Everyone had a chance to comment on all the drafts, but I remember Kathy suggesting to me that I slow down the opening a bit to introduce the characters and setting before plunging the reader into events. I not only took her advice, but I went on to completely rewrite that story. And in the process of rewriting that draft, my writing reached a new level. I'm sure Kathy's class helped me improve my writing, along with her comments. I also learned that she'd taught this class before and that several of her students had formed a workshop. Unfortunately, I decided the drive was too long and too late at night to commit to regularly.

Luckily, that wasn't the last time I saw Kathy, though. She recommended in class that we attend science fiction conventions, so the next year I took her advice and went to WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention held every Memorial Day weekend in Madison, Wisconsin. While I was there, I met Kathy again. She not only remembered me but was pleased to hear I'd kept up with the writing. We met several times at other WisCons and other conventions -- a couple of WindyCons in Schaumberg, Illinois; ChiCon 2000, the World Science Fiction convention held in Chicago two years ago; and OddCons in Madison. She was a panelist at all of these conventions and signed books at some of them. Whenever I saw her name in the programming, I'd try to attend at least one of her panels so I could talk to her afterwards. We also sat together when we attended other panels and had lunch/dinner together a few times. She introduced me to other people she knew, and I became friends with another writer when I learned he was also a former student of hers. At last year's WindyCon, she and her husband Tom treated me to lunch and said I could treat them when I sold my first book. I wish I'd been able to return the favor.

Kathy and I also e-mailed each other sporadically. I asked her advice about submitting my work to publishers and how to follow up when they didn't respond in a reasonable time. She cheered when I received good news from agents and when "Move Over Ms. L." earned an Honorable Mention in an international contest; she also offered comfort when I received rejections. You may have noticed that I've had a link to her site for a few months. Earlier this year, I suggested we meet for lunch, but sadly the cancer and chemo had already sapped a lot of her energy. She seemed especially tired when I saw her at OddCon in April, but she seemed to be doing a little better at this year's WisCon.

Kathy was involved in more than just writing and teaching writing. She had degrees in astromony, physics, and geology and geophysics; her primary profession was as a research geologist. She was also interested in ancient Egypt, and several of her short stories use that setting. (Her interest in geology also showed up in her work.) She was also the former first lady of Verona, Wisconsin and supported her husband's work with local government.

Kathy's legacy in science fiction and fantasy is larger than it might appear to be if you simply consider her work, though she sold several short stories in addition to her two anthologies. She taught her writing seminar for several years; I don't know how many students she had, but there must be a few dozen at least. But perhaps her most far-reaching and enduring legacy will be the one coming from a panel she was on at WisCon a few years ago, when the panelists wondered if women writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror could have a group to support them the way women writers of westerns and mysteries do. That panel led to the founding of BroadUniverse, a non-profit group dedicated to promoting fantasy, science fiction, and horror written by women. Today their online discussion group has over 200 members and makes appearances at major cons across the country. At WisCon this year, I bought a couple of buttons to support them and gave Kathy one. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that it was through BroadUniverse that I learned of her passing.

Although I say on my "Passing the Pen" page that I'm proud to consider Kathy a mentor, I don't think I ever told her directly. I hope she knew, though. I plan to dedicate my first published book to her .

Kathy, if you can somehow see this from wherever you are now, I'd like to thank you for your advice and friendship. I hope you'll be accepted into the membership of HeavenCon with wide open arms.

List of Kathleen Massie-Ferch's Work (Taken From Her Website)

Anthologies (Editor):

Ancient Enchantresses, DAW Books, 1995

Warrior Enchantresses, DAW Books, 1996

Short Fiction

"A Touch Through Time," Past Imperfect, DAW Books, 2001

"An Admiral's Obsession," Future Wars, DAW Books, 2002

"Traces," Far Frontiers, DAW Books, 2000

"Gifts of Wonder and Darkness," New Amazons, DAW Books, 2000

"Touched By Moonlight and Sunshine," Merlin, DAW Books, 1999

"Moon Hunters," Moonshots, DAW Books, 1999

"Nine Springs," Sword and Scorceress XVI, DAW Books, 1999

"Warrior of Ma-at," Warrior Princesses, DAW Books, 1998

"The Cast of Cards," New Altars, Angelus Press, 1997

"Ancient Enchantresses of War," Ancient Enchantresses, DAW Books, 1995

"United Powers," Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, Number 33.

"The Living Walls," Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, Number 6.

"Prayers on the Night Wind," Romance and Beyond, Summer 1998

"To Dance the Music," Romance and Beyond, Spring 2000


Michael Offutt said...

A beautiful tribute. Cancer is awful and it takes so many people from us way too early :(

sandy axelrod said...

Such a wonderful tribute! I love your writing and I'll be back for more.

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